The NFL’s decision to cram more than half of its Week 17 games into the Sunday afternoon time slot created the potential for chaos, and the final week of the regular season did not disappoint. Clutch wins by the Falcons, Titans, and Bills punched those teams’ respective tickets to the postseason, while no-shows by the Panthers and by the Ravens defense also played key roles. The 12-team playoff field is now set, and the results from this slate could have ripple effects that extend far beyond just wild-card weekend.
Let’s start with the AFC, where the race for the final playoff spot came down to the wire. Andy Dalton’s 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd with 44 seconds left in the fourth quarter led Cincinnati past Baltimore 31-27 and effectively knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs, giving Buffalo its first postseason berth in 18 years. Baltimore getting bounced at the last moment was memorable mostly for the reaction videos from Bills fans. New Year’s Eve can be a day of catharsis; I’m not sure any feeling came close to the one that permeated Buffalo on Sunday. Anyone who’s ever said simply making the playoffs isn’t enough has clearly never been to Western New York.
The end of the Bills’ playoff drought is a terrific story, but it also sets up what may be the least intriguing AFC wild-card matchups imaginable. With the Bills and Titans snagging the conference’s final two postseason spots, the Ravens and Chargers will watch the wild-card round from home. Not to steal any joy away from Buffalo or Tennessee fans, but this group of playoff teams all but guarantees that we’re due a lot of chalk in the AFC.
Jacksonville’s offense looked uninspiring for the second straight week in a 15-10 loss to Tennessee, although at least this time the Jaguars had reason to come out flat. While head coach Doug Marrone played his starters for Sunday’s entire contest, the team’s no. 3 seeding was locked before it ever took the field. Next weekend, the Bills will travel to Jacksonville to take on a Jaguars team that’s superior to them in just about every way. The same type of scenario applies to the Titans, who will head to Kansas City to clash with the heavily favored Chiefs. If the Chargers or Ravens had snuck into the AFC field, the potential for a run by a low-seeded wild-card team would’ve felt possible. Those odds decreased dramatically with Sunday’s results. At this point, any hope of derailing a conference title game rematch between the Patriots and Steelers almost certainly rests with the Chiefs and Jaguars.
While the AFC had a handful of teams vying for wild-card berths entering Week 17, there was far less uncertainty in the back end of the NFC race. If the Falcons beat Carolina, they were in. It was that simple. Atlanta got the job done 22-10 thanks to another impressive outing from its defense, which held Cam Newton to an abysmal 14-of-34 passing for 180 yards with three interceptions. The Falcons’ win brings a wild array of NFC possibilities.
Atlanta securing the sixth seed throws a wrench into the playoff picture in a way the depleted Seahawks making the field would not have. The Falcons offense has been a scattershot disappointment at times this season, but the same roster that stormed to the Super Bowl last February is almost entirely healthy and intact. Any team with Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, and the game-changers Atlanta has on defense represents an unwelcome sight for opponents in January. The Russell Wilson Factor gave Seattle an element of frightening volatility; in a sense, players like Deion Jones and Keanu Neal provide something similar for the Falcons. Although Atlanta’s defensive performance in 2017 was a letdown (23rd in Football Outsiders’ DVOA), that unit still features several guys who are turnovers waiting to happen.
Coming into Week 17, it seemed as if a Falcons win would set up a rivalry rubber match with New Orleans in the wild-card round, a notion that gave me chills just thinking about it. But with the Saints’ surprising 31-24 loss in Tampa Bay, the Rams (who sat virtually every starter on Sunday) will now host Atlanta in prime time next Saturday. That’s a solid consolation prize.
Rams head coach Sean McVay said last week that his choice to rest players in the regular-season finale against the 49ers was a joint decision made after consulting with trainers, his sports science staff, and others. But he didn’t acknowledge the Nick Foles–shaped elephant in the room. The no. 4 seed in the NFC has the inside track to playing the Eagles with a wild-card win. Philadelphia looks like an attractive destination these days.
Considering that the Eagles had already locked up home-field advantage before Week 17, Foles spent much of Sunday’s 6-0 loss to the Cowboys on the bench. Before that, though, he went 4-of-11 passing for 39 yards with an interception. Carson Wentz’s ACL injury was always going to impact the postseason landscape, but that impact may be even larger than it initially seemed. It’s gotten tough to cling to the belief that the rest of Philadelphia’s roster is enough to buoy Foles and keep the Eagles in the Super Bowl mix. If the Saints and Rams both win next weekend, it’s likely that New Orleans will enter Philly as a road favorite against the no. 1 seed in the NFC.
That outcome would send the Rams to Minnesota to face the only team this season that’s defeated Los Angeles’s starters by more than one score. Case Keenum’s presence at quarterback might be enough to give some people pause about the Vikings’ championship hopes, but we should be past that point. Some late-season shuffling along the offensive line (guard Nick Easton broke his ankle in Week 16) aside, there’s an argument to be made that Minnesota is the most complete team in the NFC. The Vikings’ no. 1 scoring defense (15.8 points per game allowed) has been a wrecking ball over the past three weeks. It’s allowed a total of 17 points in wins over the Bengals, Packers, and Bears, respectively, and those came not long after Minnesota held the Rams and Falcons to single digits. Head coach Mike Zimmer’s team looks terrifying right now, and if the Saints (or Rams) knock off the Eagles in the divisional round, the Vikings could spend the entire playoffs at home.
Unlike in the AFC, the potential scenarios in the NFC seem endless. The Panthers offense has been hapless over the past two weeks, but Carolina is less than a month removed from hanging 31 points on Minnesota. Atlanta looms as a potential buzz saw. The Saints have Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas. And I’ve barely even mentioned the Rams, who rank no. 1 in DVOA and have been stomping teams of late. An air of inevitably has started to settle over the AFC, where the Pats and Steelers stand apart. But in the NFC, you might as well spin a wheel to predict who emerges.
The chaos officially began in Week 17. It’s far from over.
Check back on Tuesday for a playoff edition of The Starting 11.