Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in:
1. With only one week left in the season, this edition of The Starting 11 is almost entirely reserved for sifting through the myriad possible playoff outcomes that could arise from Week 17’s games. Let’s start with what we do know, which includes who will be the no. 1 seed in the NFC. With their 31-28 win over the Steelers on Sunday, the Saints officially wrapped up the top spot in the conference. Their win over the Rams in Week 9 means that even if New Orleans loses to Carolina next week, the Saints would still own the tiebreaker over Los Angeles for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. And after watching the Saints’ win over Pittsburgh on Sunday — specifically Drew Brees’s performance down the stretch — it’s clear that the road to the Super Bowl will be extraordinarily tough for any team that has to visit the Superdome. New Orleans has stumbled a bit offensively over the past month, but Brees and friends still represent a daunting task on the road.
The playoff picture across the rest of the conference is mostly set, though there could still be a bit of jostling over seeding in Week 17. The Bears can overtake the Rams for the no. 2 seed if L.A. loses to the 49ers next week and Chicago knocks off the Vikings, but that’s a tall order. Chicago’s 14-9 nailbiter win over San Francisco on Sunday ensured that the Bears would be no lower than the no. 3 seed. Pending a surprising loss by the Rams, that’s likely where Chicago will wind up after next week’s games. The Niners have been a tough out as of late, with a win over the Seahawks in Week 15 and a strong showing against the Bears, but with a first-round bye on the line, it’d be shocking to see the Rams fall flat at home. Dallas’s 27-20 win over the Buccaneers on Sunday earned the Cowboys the NFC East title, and coupled with the Bears’ win, the Cowboys are locked into the no. 4 seed in the NFC.
2. The NFC’s no. 5 seed also appears to be virtually set after the Seahawks’ 38-31 impressive win over the Chiefs on Sunday night. Seattle’s performance against Kansas City has to terrify every other team in the NFC field. Russell Wilson made several big-time throws to keep pace with Patrick Mahomes II, and even more encouraging, Doug Baldwin put together his best game of the season. When Wilson is playing at this level, Seattle is a threat to knock off any team in the league, and with Baldwin back healthy, the Seahawks have yet another gear. Seattle could still wind up with the no. 6 seed, but that would require a loss to the Cardinals on Sunday and a Vikings’ win over Chicago. No matter what happens against Arizona, the Seahawks will fill one of the final two playoff spots — they own every possible tiebreaker over the Eagles (the only other team still alive in the NFC race). Earning one of the two wild-card spots means that Seattle won’t enjoy the comforts of CenturyLink Field during the playoffs, but even on the road, Wilson is going to be an unwelcome sight on wild-card weekend.
3. Philadelphia’s thrilling 32-30 win over the Texans keeps the Nick Foles dream alive for at least one more week, but the Eagles will need some help if they’re going to sneak into the postseason. On Sunday, the Eagles showed just how dangerous they could be if they manage to secure the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC. Philly’s front four finished the game with four sacks and tallied nine total hits on Deshaun Watson over the course of the afternoon. The Texans’ porous offensive line may not be the best litmus test, but even against better pass-protecting units, the Eagles defensive line can take over games. Chris Long cleaned up two plays for a pair of sacks, and virtually every member of the defensive line spent some time in the Houston backfield. Philadelphia’s banged-up secondary would still be a serious concern if the Eagles manage to get in, but the pass rush can mask some of those deficiencies.
On offense, Philly has shown no hesitation at handing the reins to Nick Foles. Foles uncorked 49 passes for 471 yards on Sunday, including an 83-yard bomb to Nelson Agholor late in the third quarter. Over the past two weeks, Foles hasn’t been shy about pushing the ball down the field, whether it’s been to Agholor, Alshon Jeffery, or others. The Eagles’ ability to make huge plays in the vertical, combined with plenty of volume for Zach Ertz, has Philly’s air attack clicking just fine without Carson Wentz. At this point, the Eagles look like a team that could make some noise if they do wiggle into the playoff picture (hell, they beat the Rams on the road last week), but they’ll need a boost from the Bears if they’re going to snag that final spot. If Chicago beats the Vikings next Sunday and the Eagles beat Washington, then Philly is in.
4. Each team vying for the no. 6 seed in the NFC would be entering the playoffs red hot. Following a blowout win over the Dolphins in offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski’s first game, the Vikings earned a convincing 27-9 win over the Lions on Sunday. Tight end Kyle Rudolph had a monster day through the air with 122 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns, but for the second-straight week, Dalvin Cook was the focal point of the Vikings offense. Cook carried the ball 16 times and allowed Minnesota to lean on the play-action passing game. Kirk Cousins used a play fake on 12 of his 30 dropbacks on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, and completed 83.3 percent of his throws while using play action. When head coach Mike Zimmer fired former coordinator John DeFilippo two weeks ago, he wanted the Vikings offense to recommit to the under-center play-action pass as the basis of their passing game. And that’s exactly what’s happened under Stefanski.
If the Vikings can beat the Bears in Week 17, with Chicago having significantly less to play for than a Minnesota team fighting for its playoff lives, they’ll earn the no. 6 seed and will likely be heading to Chicago to play the Bears for the second straight week. If the Vikings lose to Chicago and the Eagles manage to beat Washington and sneak in, they’ll enter the playoffs on a three-game winning streak. Whichever team lands the last playoff spot, they’ll have to string together a few wins in a row just before the postseason begins.
5. Unlike the NFC, the top of the AFC playoff picture is far from settled, and there are plenty of scenarios on the table heading into Week 17. With a win over the Seahawks, the Chiefs would have wrapped up both the AFC West title and the no. 1 seed in the AFC. Instead, their loss kept both the Patriots and the Chargers alive in the race for home-field advantage. A Chiefs win over Oakland in Week 17 would earn them the no. 1 seed, but if Kansas City loses to the Raiders, the Pats and Chargers would both have paths to the no. 1 seed. A win by the Chargers over Denver, coupled with a Chiefs loss, would send the road to the Super Bowl through StubHub Center. And if the Chargers and Chiefs lose, the Patriots would somehow come away with the top spot. Again, all of that is contingent on the Chiefs losing — at home — to the Raiders, which doesn’t seem likely. But Sunday’s loss at least kept hope alive for the AFC’s other teams.
6. The entrenched AFC playoff team that took the biggest hit on Sunday was easily the Texans. Their loss to the Eagles bumped them from the no. 2 seed and will likely have them playing on wild-card weekend. The only remaining path for the Texans to secure the no. 2 seed is with a win over the Jaguars in Week 17 and losses from the Chiefs and Chargers. There’s also a scenario in which the Texans come away with home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, but that would necessitate a Patriots loss to the Jets in addition to losses by the Chiefs and Chargers. More likely than not, Houston’s loss to the Eagles has them locked into the no. 3 seed as the AFC South champions, but even that’s not a guarantee at this point.
7. Both the Colts and Titans secured wins in Week 16, so they remain alive in the AFC South race. If the Texans fall to Jacksonville next week, the winner of the Colts-Titans game would win the division and almost certainly host a playoff game as the no. 3 seed. If Houston does beat the Jags, then Colts-Titans becomes a play-in game for the sixth and final AFC playoff spot. It was a close call for the Colts on Sunday against the Giants, but after falling behind by double digits on two separate occasions in the second half, Andrew Luck’s offense managed three second-half touchdowns to secure the 28-27 win. By sneaking past the Giants, the Colts have set up a winner-take-all game with the Titans next week. Whoever wins will probably be looking at an intradivision matchup with the Texans on wild-card weekend.
8. With the Titans and Colts left to battle it out for the sixth and final spot, the Steelers are the odd team out in the AFC. Baltimore’s 22-10 win over the Chargers on Saturday was terrible news for the Steelers, who now face a tough road to the postseason that would require them to win the AFC North. The no. 6 seed is still in play, but to earn that they’d need an extremely unlikely tie between the Colts and Titans. If the Ravens stumble against a surging Browns team next week and the Steelers knock off the Bengals, Pittsburgh could still win the AFC North. But Baltimore has looked like a legit contender in the AFC for the better part of a month. The idea of the playoffs without the Steelers is an odd thing to imagine, especially considering that Pittsburgh pushed arguably the best team in football to the brink on Sunday in the Superdome. At full strength, the Steelers seem like they could give any team in the AFC field a run — even on the road — but it’s looking increasingly likely that Pittsburgh will be watching the playoffs from home.
9. The dream of the Browns making the postseason was fun while it lasted. Of all the potential playoff scenarios that arose over the past few weeks, the Browns sneaking in was easily the most fun to imagine. Few teams in the league are more enjoyable to watch right now than Cleveland, which won its fifth game in six weeks on Sunday, beating the Bengals 26-18. But their playoff chances died on Saturday night with the Titans’ 25-16 win over Washington. It was always going to be a nearly impossible task, given the terrible start the Browns had under Hue Jackson this season, but Cleveland could still finish the year above .500 and play the spoiler by knocking off the Ravens next Sunday.
10. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Jadeveon Clowney roasted Halapoulivaati Vaitai more than once with a quick inside move on Sunday. Clowney was absolutely everywhere in the Texans’ loss; he finished with a sack, three quarterback hits, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. His most reliable move was this inside swim that he hit against both the run and the pass. Clowney’s never been much of a natural bender around the corner, but his ability to stop and start after changing direction has been elite since the moment he got into the NFL. When he’s able to consistently beat a tackle inside, you know it’s going to be a long afternoon.
A good afternoon from Jadeveon Clowney, Mr. Vaitai. pic.twitter.com/zB9845wIh9— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) December 23, 2018
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us… It’s great to have Doug Baldwin back.