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. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. And by that, I mean, “It’s that stretch of the calendar when I have open 20 tabs that detail playoff scenarios and tiebreakers.” So ahead of Week 17, we’re using this edition of the Starting 11 to sort through the playoff craziness, starting with the race for home field in the NFC. Before getting bogged down in some of the more convoluted scenarios, let’s start with a simple—and quite feasible—one. After wins this weekend, the Saints and Niners are both 12-3. Along with the Packers (who play Monday night), they’re the only teams in the conference with just three losses. If all three teams win out, San Francisco would grab the no. 1 seed, Green Bay would earn a first-round bye as the second seed, and the Saints would fall to no. 3 and play on wild-card weekend (most likely against the Vikings). That would be a brutal outcome for New Orleans, considering:
2. After their win over the Titans on Sunday and their dismantling of the Colts in Week 15, the Saints look like the best team in the NFC—and they’re still in play for the conference’s top seed. It’s not easy to quietly go 12-3 as your best players shatter records, but that’s exactly what the Saints have done this season. New Orleans demolished the Colts last week as Drew Brees finished 29-of-30 and became the league’s all-time leader in touchdown passes. Then on Sunday, the Saints fell behind a good Titans team 14-0 on the road, and somehow cruised to a 38-28 win. Late in the fourth quarter, Michael Thomas hauled in his 144th catch of the year, which broke Marvin Harrison’s single-season receptions record.
Brees and Thomas are the Saints’ two biggest stars, but they’re far from the only stars on this roster. From top to bottom, this team is absolutely loaded with talent. New Orleans had six players make my All-Pro team last week, and several of them (including Cam Jordan and Demario Davis) had big games on Sunday. Those All-Pro selections didn’t even include Brees, left tackle Terron Armstead, or running back Alvin Kamara (who looked like his old self against Tennessee, rushing for 80 yards and a pair of touchdowns on just 11 carries). The Saints are playing great football at the right time, and it seems like the five-plus games that Brees missed earlier this year with a torn thumb ligament might have actually been a positive for New Orleans. The 40-year-old QB looks much fresher right now than he did down the stretch last season; he’s playing as well as any passer in football, and that makes the Saints a frightening challenge.
Sunday’s comeback win over the Titans was crucial for New Orleans to stay alive for the no. 1 seed in the NFC. Sean Payton’s team will need some help to earn home-field advantage, but the Saints have the easiest remaining schedule of the NFC’s three-loss teams. The Packers have to travel to Minnesota on Monday night to play the Vikings, and the 49ers have to play in Seattle next week. If the Packers and Niners both lose one more game and the Saints take care of business against the Panthers on Sunday, the road to the Super Bowl will go through the Superdome.
3. They may not look as formidable as the Saints, but the Packers actually need less help to earn the no. 1 seed. If Green Bay can get past the Vikings on Monday and beat the Lions next week, the Packers will be rooting hard for the Seahawks next Sunday night. Should Seattle beat San Francisco, Green Bay would earn home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
If the Packers lose to the Vikings on Monday night, though, their path to a first-round bye will become significantly tougher. Green Bay would need the Saints to lose a shocker to the Panthers in Week 17 in order to earn the no. 2 seed. The more likely outcome with a loss on Monday night would be that Green Bay will wind up with the no. 3 seed and have to host either a Niners team that decimated them in prime time a month ago or the Seahawks. It goes without saying that Monday’s game is huge for the Packers and could mean the difference between a bye and a dangerous matchup with either the 49ers or Vikings on wild-card weekend.
Those who live in constant fear of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers (read: me) have maintained that despite Green Bay’s inconsistency on offense this season, this team will still be a scary sight in January. That’s especially true if the Packers can snag a bye. Rodgers has been significantly more efficient at home this year than on the road. He’s averaged 8.0 yards per attempt at Lambeau Field this season, compared to just 6.3 away from Wisconsin. Some of that increased production has to do with the defenses he’s faced (and the boost from a monster game at home against the Raiders), but the prospect of visiting Rodgers and the Pack in Green Bay feels much more daunting for a team like New Orleans or San Francisco than hosting them in the divisional round.
4. If the Vikings do beat the Packers on Monday, Minnesota still has a shot to win the NFC North. The odds are slim (The Upshot currently gives the Vikings a 12 percent chance to win the division), but it’s still possible! Minnesota would need to follow up a win over the Packers with a victory over the miserable Bears in Week 17—and hope that the Lions can somehow knock off Green Bay in Detroit. Right now, the Vikings are the only team in the league that’s more upset about Matthew Stafford’s season-ending back injury than the Lions are. With Stafford in the lineup back in October, Detroit gave the Packers a run in a game the Lions probably should have won. But it doesn’t seem like a David Blough–led squad will be up to the task of spoiling the Packers’ season with an NFC North title on the line.
Even if the Vikings don’t win the division, though, there’s still plenty of incentive to beat Green Bay on Monday night. If the Vikings win out and the Niners lose to Seattle, Minnesota would earn the no. 5 seed and avoid a rematch with the Packers in the divisional round. In that scenario, the Vikings would (presumably) travel to Philadelphia and try to avenge their embarrassing loss to the Eagles in the 2018 NFC championship game. Then, should the Niners beat the Packers and the Vikings top the Eagles, Minnesota would travel to Seattle in the divisional round. That’s absolutely a winnable game for the Vikings against a beat-up Seahawks team.
5. Seattle’s rash of injuries has come at the worst possible time, considering next week’s matchup with the Niners could swing the entire NFC. The NFL announced on Sunday that it’s flexing this game to the prime-time slot next week, which makes sense: It’s the only matchup that will directly have a division title on the line. If the Niners win, it doesn’t matter what else happens—they’ll have home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. But if Seattle wins, the scenarios get a little wonkier.
If the Seahawks beat San Francisco and both the Packers and Saints win, Seattle will get the no. 3 seed. If Seattle wins, Green Bay loses one of its next two games, and the Saints beat Carolina, then the Seahawks get a bye as the no. 2 seed. But the odds of that happening aren’t high. The Upshot currently gives the Seahawks a 34 percent chance at earning a first-round bye.
Before thinking about fallout elsewhere, though, both the Niners and Seahawks need to worry about taking care of business next Sunday. A loss for either team would be absolutely devastating, considering the excellent seasons they’ve both put together. After looking like the top team in the NFC for most of the season, the Niners could fall all the way from the no. 1 seed to the no. 6 seed with a loss next week and two more wins from the Vikings, and a Packers win over the Lions. San Francisco is definitely talented enough to win three straight games on the road, but not earning a home game—and a first-round bye—would represent a massive letdown from where this team was at midseason. Whichever team doesn’t win in Week 17 would probably benefit from Green Bay beating the Vikings on Monday night. That would give Minnesota the no. 6 seed and send the loser of the de facto NFC West title game to Philadelphia—allowing them to avoid the Packers or Saints on wild-card weekend.
6. The Cowboys technically can still win the NFC East, but at this point, that would just feel wrong. If the Eagles lose to the Giants next week and the Cowboys beat Washington, then Dallas would win the division at 8-8 and likely host either the Vikings or the NFC West runner-up on wild-card weekend. You could easily argue that Philadelphia wouldn’t deserve to make the playoffs after losing to this Giants team, but after Dallas’s performance on Sunday, the Cowboys probably don’t deserve to either. I guess there’s an argument to be made that a healthy, engaged Cowboys team would have a better shot at making a deep run than a depleted Eagles squad, but I’ve talked myself into Dallas too many times this year. It’s not happening again.
7. Buffalo is locked into the no. 5 seed in the AFC, and it’s not hard to imagine this team pulling off a playoff upset. After losing a close game to the Patriots on Saturday, the Bills’ playoff seeding is set, and it seems like they’ll be traveling to Houston on wild-card weekend. It was tough to get much of a read on Buffalo through the first two-thirds of the season. The Bills started 8-3, but their wins came against the Dolphins (twice), Jets, Giants, Bengals, Titans (with Marcus Mariota at quarterback), and Broncos (with Brandon Allen at quarterback). But the back half of the Bills’ schedule has shown that this team can hang with some of the league’s elite. After losing by a touchdown to the Ravens in Week 14 and beating the Steelers on the road in Week 15, Buffalo stuck with the Patriots before eventually falling 24-17. Josh Allen’s inconsistencies make it hard to trust the Bills in critical moments, but his ability to create big plays through the air and move the chains with his legs still has plenty of value. With offseason additions like Cole Beasley, Dawson Knox, and John Brown in the fold, this offense has a puncher’s chance every week. And combined with one of the league’s best defenses, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Buffalo earn a win in the first round.
8. There could still be a small bit of position jostling in the AFC race, but any significant movement would be surprising. The Ravens have already secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. If the Patriots were to somehow lose to Miami in Week 17 and the Chiefs beat the Chargers, then Kansas City would supplant New England for the conference’s no. 2 spot. If the Chiefs were to lose, a Texans win would earn Houston the no. 3 seed. While possible, neither of those scenarios seems likely—FiveThirtyEight gives the Patriots a 91 percent chance of earning a first-round bye. The Chiefs game kicks off at 1 p.m. ET next Sunday, so by the time the Texans suit up for their 4:25 game, they’ll know whether they can jump Kansas City. But head coach Bill O’Brien said on Monday that anytime his team takes the field, “based on what we’re all about, we’re trying to win.” Which, sure.
9. The Titans control their own fate in the race for the AFC’s no. 6 seed, but the Steelers (and Raiders!) are still technically alive. After Pittsburgh’s loss to the Jets on Sunday, Tennessee can secure the no. 6 seed with a win over the Texans (who, again, may have nothing to play for next week). If the Titans lose, though, and the Steelers beat a Lamar Jackson–less Ravens team, then Pittsburgh would be in. For the sake of all that is watchable about professional football, I feel comfortable saying that we, as a football-loving public, should be rooting for the Titans on Sunday. That being said, it would admittedly be incredible if both the Titans and Steelers lost on Sunday and opened up a window for the one and only Jon Gruden. That’s right: If those teams lose, the Colts beat the Jags, and the Raiders beat the Broncos, Oakland is in. I’m not sure that would make for the best AFC playoff field, but considering the Raiders needed 10 different things to happen to make the postseason entering Week 16, I’m kind of rooting for it.
10. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Nick Bosa is here to wreck your offense. T.J. Lang was a Pro Bowl guard for the Packers, and he also spent some time at tackle during his excellent career. When guys like that are saying, “I’m not sure how to stop this,” you’re probably doing something right.
This is so freaking quick and I honestly don’t know what the RT could’ve done different without nitpicking. https://t.co/dG0TWY0ZrZ— TJ Lang (@TJLang70) December 22, 2019
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Lamar Jackson is just toying with guys now.