In a week where nine of the 15 NFL matchups ended as one-score games, it didn’t really feel like we had an exciting Sunday with lots of close calls. Maybe it’s because for the most part, the team that was winning each game down the stretch ultimately held on and secured the victory. Maybe it’s because the four teams that clinched playoff spots yesterday—New England, Denver, Indianapolis, Arizona—did it without any drama or build-up. If they hadn’t clinched in week 15, they would have in week 16 anyway. And really, the only division-defining game yesterday was Dallas beating Philadelphia (and as you’ll see below, it wasn’t even that backbreaking for Philly).
Kind of a ho-hum weekend for being so late in the regular season.
Lucky for us we don’t have to focus too much on the specifics of week 15. Instead we can look at the broader landscape of the NFL as we quickly approach January football.
The NFC is Tidy, Organized Chaos…
I love how the NFC is shaking out because it’s easy to express what’s going on in that conference without a super long explanation.
There are two-team races in three divisions: the West (Arizona is 11-3, Seattle is 10-4), the North (Detroit is 10-4, Green Bay is 10-4) and the East (Dallas is 10-4, Philadelphia s 9-5).
The losers of those three divisions are competing for the two available NFC Wildcard spots. So for the moment, you have Seattle, Green Bay and Philly technically fighting it out to play on Wildcard Weekend, but there will likely be lots of shuffling to come.
And then of course there are the three NFC South teams “battling” for that division’s automatic playoff berth (Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta).
Every other NFC team beyond those nine is eliminated.
…And the AFC is like a Los Angeles Freeway on the Day Before Thanksgiving
A never-ending clusterfuck.
The clean part is the three division winners that I already mentioned. The dirty part is everything else.
The AFC North is impossible to figure out because three teams have nine wins and one of those teams has a tie on its record. Nightmare scenario for a blogger without the knowledge or time to get into Advanced Playoff Theory.
While those three AFC North teams currently occupy three playoff spots (the division plus both Wildcards), three more teams are right on their heels with 8-6 records: Buffalo, Kansas City and San Diego.
And for the time being, the three 7-7 teams in the AFC are still technically in the hunt: Miami, Cleveland and Houston. I only know this because Bovada still has odds for those teams to win the Super Bowl (albeit not great odds at 500/1).
Compared to the nine teams in the NFC fighting for playoff spots, the AFC has 12 postseason hopefuls.
Rather than try to go through every AFC scenario, I’ll give you just two tidbits:
- The Bills are probably eliminated because they currently lose a tiebreaker to Kansas City and San Diego while still having to face the Patriots in New England. It’s highly unlikely they will clear both those AFC West teams by a full game while still facing the league’s #1 team on the road.
- Out of five extremely important games on the schedule for week 16, there might be none more important than Kansas City at Pittsburgh. The Steelers are the #5 seed in the AFC and the Chiefs are #7. A win by the Chiefs would even up the two teams’ records and give KC the tiebreaker. A Steelers win would just about guarantee them a playoff spot and possibly hand them temporary rights to being the top team in the North (because Cincy may lose to Denver on Monday night next week).
A Few More Playoff Scenarios
Using only my brain and ESPN.com’s Tiebreaking Procedures information, I think I figured out all the scenarios in the NFC. Let’s walk through this together.
- Seattle (10-4) at Arizona (11-3) in week 16.
- If Arizona wins that game, they win the West because they’ll have a two-game lead over Seattle with only one week remaining.
- If Seattle wins, both teams would be 11-4 and Seattle would hold the tiebreaker with two head-to-head wins against Arizona. In this scenario, if both teams win or both teams lose in week 17, Seattle gets the division. If Seattle wins and Arizona loses in week 17, obviously Seattle wins the division. But if Seattle loses and Arizona wins, then of course Arizona captures the division title. In those week 17 games, Arizona travels to San Francisco and Seattle hosts St Louis.
- Even though the Rams beat Seattle earlier this year, you have to give the edge to Seattle over Arizona right now. With the way the ‘Hawks are playing and the fact that Arizona has to start Poor Ryan Lindley at QB in week 16, you’d expect Seattle to win that game. Then they just have to handle the Rams at home.
- Arizona gets the consolation prize of heading to an NFC South destination over Wildcard Weekend.
- Detroit (10-4) at Green Bay (10-4) but not until week 17.
- Let’s talk about each team’s next game first. In week 16 the Lions travel to Chicago while the Packers face the Bucs in Tampa Bay. I probably don’t need to point out that if both NFC North teams win their week 16 game (highly likely) or both lose those games, the winner of their week 17 matchup will take the division.
- But let’s say Green Bay loses to Tampa while Detroit beats Chicago. Then the Lions would be one game up on the Packers.
- If Green Bay then beats Detroit in week 17, they’d have the same record, a split of their two head-to-head matchups, the same division record (5-1) AND THEY’D EVEN HAVE THE SAME RECORD IN COMMON GAMES!
- They would move onto the fourth tiebreaker, which is their win-loss percentage in conference games. Detroit would win the North because they’d have a 9-3 conference record while the Packers would finish at 8-4.
- The one other scenario is Detroit losing its week 16 game while Green Bay wins. In this scenario, the winner of their week 17 matchup is once again the division winner.
- If all that is correct, it means that if Green Bay loses at Tampa Bay in week 16, the Packers will not be able to win the division as long as the Lions handle the Bears.
- We all know this is coming down to week 17.
- Philadelphia (9-5) and Dallas (10-4) do not face each other again.
- First, the easy scenarios: If Dallas wins its final two games, it wins the East. If Philadelphia loses its final two games, Dallas wins the East.
- If both teams go 1-1 to finish the season, Dallas wins the East.
- If the Eagles win out and the Cowboys lose even one more game, the Eagles win the East (on account of the division record tiebreaker).
- If the Eagles go 1-1, they win the division if the Cowboys lose its final two (on account of the division tiebreaker again).
- The Cowboys finish the season hosting Indianapolis and then traveling to Washington. The Eagles have two road games: at Washington and at the Giants.
- The nice thing is this should still be up for grabs heading into week 17. If Dallas loses to the Colts and the Eagles beat Washington in week 16, Dallas no longer controls its fate.
- Somehow, someway, this atrocity of a Washington season is going to play a HUGE role in who wins the NFC East.
Speaking of Washington
The PotatoSkins finally did something right by losing to the Giants yesterday. They improved their draft positioning and made sure that no other team in the NFC East will pick before they do. And of course they couldn’t play a meaningless game without some level of drama being involved. Colt McCoy got immediately hurt, RG3 came on in relief duty, scored a huge touchdown at the end of the first half using his legs and scrambling abilities (a throwback to those long ago days of 2012), and then people started getting ejected when the refs overturned RG3’s touchdown. Just a classic Washington performance.
Anyway, here’s one Washington fan’s depressed response to my comments last week about Jay Gruden being on the hot seat:
“I don’t think there’s any way they fire Gruden after one year. I think everyone, especially the fans, recognizes that this mess is not on him. Certainly wouldn’t put it past Snyder to do something batshit crazy like fire him, but I think it’s unlikely. What they will do is a mystery though. People are pretty fed up at this point. Normally that would mean big org changes, but we’ve tried that over & over and it hasn’t worked. We could hire a new GM, I suppose, but Snyder loves George Allen. My guess is they try and sell that we have been rebuilding, blame the shit out of RG3 even though it’s as much the org’s fault as his, trade him for pennies on the dollar and draft a new guy for the fan base to try and get excited about. Anyways, who cares? They are going to suck for a while.”
Washington has officially sunk lower than Jacksonville, Oakland, Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Minnesota and Buffalo. Good job, Dan Snyder.
Questioning Two of the NFL’s Bad Teams
I don’t necessarily believing in tanking or even think it’s possible in the NFL. After all, these players and coaches are being paid millions to show up and play hard.
But when it’s this late in the season and you’re the head coach of a two-win team, you’re doing your organization a disservice if you don’t at least give tanking the old college try.
The most bizarre thing I saw on Sunday was the Jacksonville Jaguars pulling out every trick play in the book to try to beat the Ravens in Baltimore. First there was the surprise onsides kick in the first half that the Jaguars recovered to steal an extra offensive possession. Then there was a fake punt shovel pass for a long completion in the second half. The Jaguars ultimately lost, but what were they doing pulling out all the stops to secure that third win?
The Jaguars didn’t have to do anything special or sketchy to lose this game. They could have simply gone with standard, conservative play. Even if they won’t be using their first round pick on a QB, getting that top pick would produce a HAUL in a trade with a QB-needy team (there are about 37 teams looking for that franchise quarterback).
Jacksonville’s loss meant it got to stay in that exclusive club of two-win teams, but there was another two-win team that may have just screwed itself out of drafting a franchise quarterback in 2015. You didn’t even have to watch yesterday’s games or look at the results to have a solid guess on which team I’m talking about.
The New York Jets, of course.
Since they were facing fellow two-win compadre Tennessee, someone had to exit the two-win club unless they played to a tie. The Jets were on the road and trailing most of the game, but two different times in the second half they rallied and took the lead. Why bother? No team has gotten less out of the starting quarterback position in the past three years, and newly minted Heisman Winner Marcus Mariota is waiting in the wings. The Jets even had a chance to make the Titans proud owners of “The Music City Miracle, Part Two” when Tennessee started lateraling the ball all over the field on the game’s final play. Delanie Walker was making a break for the end zone to give the Titans a shocker of a win, but Dawn Landry of the Jets made the game-saving (season-ruining?) tackle to seal the victory for New York.
I hate what the 76ers are doing in the NBA right now because they are tanking an entire season and slapping their season ticket holders in the face, but to tank a game or two at the end of your season when you’re already eliminated from contention? Every team should do that. Or at least save the trick plays for a game that your owner and general manager also want you to win.
What’s interesting about the Jets’ win is that it could be a construed as an Eff You from Rex Ryan to the front office. “You’re gonna fire me because I haven’t been able to crack eight wins while being saddled with Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith and Michael Vick??? Fine, fuck you. Here’s that third win that ensures you don’t get Mariota or Jameis Winston. Enjoy Brian Hoyer or whatever other trashy free agent QB you sign, Fuckers!”
Emptying Out the Notebook
- I only use the phrase “unmitigated disaster” two times each season because it’s such a fantastic phrase. I used it in week 9 to describe my record picking against the spread last year. And for my second and final usage of that phrase in 2014, I’m going with: “Johnny Manziel was an unmitigated disaster in his debut as a starter.”
- Remember that Manziel took over a 7-6 team, a team that has Cleveland fans clamoring for the playoffs. It’s not like he was handed the keys to the Jaguars where he could toil away for a 3-13 team. People needed him to perform as good or better than Brian Hoyer’s baseline performance (not that hard to do, right?).
- He finished the day 10-for-18 for 80 yards passing, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, a 27.3 passer rating, and about 46 Cincy players standing over him doing the “money sign.”
- After I proclaimed that the MVP race was finished a week ago, did J.J. Watt just pop his head back in the room and say, “Are you guys sure you wanna go with an offensive player still?”
- Aaron Rodgers completed only 40% of his passes for 185 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and a 34.3 passer rating.
- DeMarco Murray was held to 81 rushing yards on 31 carries (averaging 2.6 yards per carry)…although he did have two touchdowns.
- Peyton Manning and Tom Brady haven’t been putting up otherworldly numbers recently as their teams’ running games and defenses have taken over.
- J.J. Watt finished his day with 6 tackles, 2 sacks, several QB hits and a pass defensed.
- I don’t think Rodgers deserves to lose his spot atop the MVP balloting for one bad game, but voters seem to love guys who play their best in December. Luckily Rodgers gets a matchup with Tampa Bay next week to make or break his MVP campaign.
- For once, a positive word on the Lions…Does Teryl Austin deserve some sort of special recognition for the work he’s done this year? You’re probably asking who the hell that is, right? Apparently he’s the Lions’ defensive coordinator. Their defense was horrible in 2012, middle of the pack in 2013, and now in 2014 it’s the best D in football. This is a 10-win team that has a below average offense, a meh quarterback in Matthew Stafford, a special teams unit that ranks 30th in the league in efficiency and a coach who’s best trait is “I’m not Mike Smith.” Someone deserves a ton of credit for the Lions being on the brink of a playoff berth and division title, so I’m giving it to Teryl Austin, 2014’s Unsung Hero in the NFL.
- And last but not least, this week’s best announcer quote. I didn’t even have to wait for the weekend for this one. In the first half of Thursday’s game between Arizona and St. Louis, Jim Nantz promoted the upcoming Thursday game of Tennessee at Jacksonville. Without hesitation or any hint of sarcasm, Phil Simms stated, “I’m looking forward to it.”
- I’m going the other way on this game…it might be the first game in five years that I voluntarily don’t bother watching.
Week 16 picks coming on Thursday.