One Game More to Decide Playoff Teams

With surprising victories by Miami and Jacksonville, much of the drama that might have hung over Week 17 has been resolved.  We go into the last week of the season with the playoff teams mostly decided – if not yet seeded.  Here – essentially – is what is still to be decided:

AFC Eastern Division

New England (13-2) has been sitting on top of this conference virtually the entire season – in spite of the fact that All-Everything Quarterback Tom Brady was forced to sit out the season’s first four games.  They are currently the top seed in the conference, but Oakland is only one game behind at 12-3.  Should both teams finish at 13-3, Oakland will get the seed.  In that event, Oakland will be 5-0 against teams that both Oakland and New England have played, while the Patriots will be 4-1 in those games.

Oakland has beaten Baltimore (28-27), Denver twice (30-20 and they will have to beat the Broncos on Sunday to finish at 13-3), Houston (27-20), and Buffalo (38-24).  New England has wins over Houston (27-0), Buffalo (41-25), Baltimore (30-23), and Denver (16-3).  But in Week Four – the last week of Brady’s exile – the Pats were shutout by Buffalo 16-0.  That lonely loss is the only possible lasting impact of the Brady suspension – and for that loss to drop New England into the second seed, Oakland will have to win in Denver without their starting quarterback and Miami will have to beat New England (also without their starting quarterback) on Sunday.

Neither of those outcomes is unthinkable.

The Denver-Oakland game we’ll deal with in a minute.

As for Miami, the Dolphins won a defining game (and punched their playoff ticket) last Sunday when they went into freezing Buffalo and won in overtime with their backup quarterback.  That victory establishes them as one of the wildcard teams (currently the sixth seed).  If they win their last game against the Patriots and Kansas City loses on the road in San Diego, the Dolphins could finish as the fifth seed, pushing KC into the sixth slot.

I don’t know that the difference in seeding is enough for the Dolphins to give maximum effort in their last game.  I do think the fact that they will be playing at home against the hated Patriots is reason enough.  There are other reasons, too.  Matt Moore – the man at the helm in Ryan Tannehill’s absence – needs all of the real-time reps he can get.  Plus, the Dolphins are not so established that they can turn things off and turn them back on.  I don’t think that they think they have the luxury of resting starters.

All of that being said, I don’t believe that they could handle New England’s best game.  I don’t know, though, that they will get New England’s best game.  There is little on the table for the Patriots.  The slide from first to second will only matter if both New England and Oakland win their divisional round matchups – and the Raiders won’t have their starting QB.  I don’t truly expect to see Brady on the field too long – maybe the first half, or maybe just the first drive.  Some other notables (like LeGarrette Blount) may also be done early.  The Patriots may surprise me, but I think that this game is there for the Dolphins to take, if they want it.

AFC North

The 10-5 Pittsburgh Steelers wrapped up their division title with a gritty victory over the game Baltimore Ravens.  They are locked in as the number three seed.  The AFC South champions in Houston could finish at 10-6 if they win in Tennessee on Sunday, but for Pittsburgh to also finish at 10-6, they would have to lose at home against the one-win Cleveland team.  Even if that happens, Pittsburgh’s strength-of-victory index will be better than Houston’s.

AFC West

Oakland (12-3) leads the division, holds the second seed, and has a chance at the number one seed.  But they haven’t locked up the division, yet.  Kansas City sits right behind them at 11-4, holding the tie breaker by virtue of winning both games against the Raiders this season.  They (KC) finishes the season on the road against a fading but dangerous San Diego team, while the Raiders and backup QB Matt McGloin journey into Denver to play last year’s champions.

The disappointed Broncos will certainly give Oakland its best game, but I legitimately wonder if Denver can take Oakland even if they are playing at home against the Raiders’ backup signal caller.  The Bronco offense has creaked to a halt during the season’s final weeks.  During their current three-game losing streak, Denver has failed to score more than ten points in any of them.  However, the Raiders Achilles Heel even before the loss of Derek Carr was its defense (ranked twenty-eighth overall and allowing 24 points per game).  Denver managed 20 points against them in Oakland earlier this season.  If they can manage that many at home on Sunday, they can put the game in McGloin’s hands – and Denver still has football’s best pass defense.

While Denver is flawed, Oakland – minus its QB – is, I think, more flawed.  I expect to see Oakland lose this game (giving New England the number one seed, regardless).  I’m less clear on what to expect from the Chargers and Chiefs.  While the Chargers are always dangerous, they have mostly found ways to lose games this year while KC has mostly found ways to win games this year.  In the final analysis, I just don’t see Kansas City – with so much at stake – losing it all to a 5-10 team, even if they are a division opponent playing at home.  My best guess at the way this plays out has KC pulling off the division title and the second seed on the last day of the season, sending Oakland to the fifth seed and sending them on the road to open the playoffs in:

AFC South

Houston.  The Texans (now 9-6) have yet to lose a division game all season (they are 5-0 so far).  When 3-12 Jacksonville rose up last Sunday to rend the now 8-7 Tennessee Titans, they dropped Tennessee to 1-4 in the division.  So even though Tennessee could tie Houston at 9-7 with a win at home against them Sunday, the Texans own the tie breaker.  They are locked into the fourth seed and likely to draw the Raiders in the wildcard round of the playoffs, while Pittsburgh will most likely match up with Miami.

None of the AFC participants can change.  The only thing Week 17 can alter is the seeding.

NFC South

The Atlanta Falcons (10-5) are two games up on their closest competitor (Tampa Bay is 8-7) with one game left.  They are the division champion.  They are currently sitting in the second seed with its corresponding first-round bye.  A final week victory over New Orleans (at home) will clinch that seeding.  New Orleans is 7-8 and kind of a more dangerous version of the Chargers.  The Saints have averaged 29.1 points a game this year (making them the NFL’s second-highest scoring team this year).  They are also number one in yardage and number one in passing yards. Furthermore, this offensive juggernaut will be working against the Falcons’ twenty-third ranked defense (number 26 against the pass) that is allowing 24.9 points a game (the twenty-fifth ranked scoring defense in the NFL).

On the other hand, Atlanta is scoring 33.5 points a game (making them the NFL’s number one scoring offense) and ranks second in yards (behind New Orleans) with the number 3 passing attack and the number 7 running attack.  New Orleans answers with the number 30 scoring defense (allowing 27.7 points a game) and the number 25 defense by yardage allowed (number 30 against the pass).

To put it lightly, America is expecting a shootout.  The Falcons won the first meeting of these teams in New Orleans 45-32.  This is, by no means, a lock – although you have to think that the home-standing Falcons should prevail.

Behind them are the young and inconsistent Buccaneers.  Tampa Bay finishes at home against the dethroned Carolina Panthers.  If Tampa prevails, they will finish at 9-7, putting them (theoretically) in the mix for that final playoff spot.  The loser of the Detroit-Green Bay tilt will also be 9-7.  Washington currently sits at 8-6-1, and could finish at 9-6-1 with a playoff berth if they finish up their season with a win.

So while Atlanta controls its own fate, Tampa Bay decidedly does not.  My strong expectation is that they will lose to the Panthers on Sunday anyway, obviating any tie-breaking scenarios.

NFC East

As the Dallas Cowboys sliced and diced the Detroit Lions last week, they locked up their division title and the first seed.  Their final game in Philadelphia is meaningless, although the statements coming from the Dallas camp suggest that they will keep the pedal down.

Also locked up is the first wildcard spot (the fifth seed).  That belongs to the 10-5 New York Giants.

Behind them are the 8-6-1 Washington Redskins.  They play at home Sunday afternoon with everything to play for against the Giants whose only real motivation could come from knocking the Redskins out of the playoffs.  And because of the tie on their record, Washington will either be in or out depending on the result.  At 9-6-1 their record would be better than any of the teams that could be 9-7.  At 8-7-1, they would finish behind any 9-7 teams (and there will be at least one of those).

My expectation here is that Washington will take care of business.  I am not all that impressed with the Giants (although their defense can certainly rise to the occasion), and I don’t expect to see them win this game on the road against a desperate (and pretty good) Washington team.  In the world of most-likely-outcomes, Washington should win and complete the playoff field.

NFC West

At 9-5-1, Seattle will be the only team from this division to finish over .500.  They have already won the title, but lost control of the number two seed with a surprising loss at home against Arizona last week.  Should Atlanta fall to New Orleans, then the second seed will be theirs if they can beat the two-win San Francisco team (in San Francisco).  Seattle would fall to the fourth seed should they lose, as the winner of the Packers-Lions game will be 10-6.  Don’t see that happening.  The Seahawks have been wildly inconsistent at the end of the season, but should still be better than the struggling 49ers.

NFC North

The season ends on Sunday night in Detroit where the 9-6 Lions will square off against the 9-6 Green Bay Packers.  At stake will be the division title in a winner-take-all showdown.

The loser will probably be home for the playoffs – assuming Washington takes care of the Giants.  Should New York rise up and knock Washington out of the playoffs then both these teams will go into the playoffs – the winner as the division champion and possible number two seed, and the loser as the number six seed.

If Detroit wins (and Atlanta and Seattle lose), the Lions and Falcons would both finish at 10-6.  The tie-breaker here would fall to Detroit on record against common opponents.  The Lions would have four wins (Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Green Bay) against just one loss (Green Bay).  Atlanta would finish 3-2 against these same opponents, with wins against New Orleans, Green Bay and Los Angeles; and losses to Philadelphia and New Orleans (if they lose that last game).  A Falcons loss to New Orleans could push them down as far as fourth.

If it ends up Green Bay vs Tampa Bay for the last wildcard spot – with both teams at 9-7 – the Packers would get the nod based on strength of victory.

If the Sunday night game tilts the other way, with Green Bay winning the division, they would lose any tie-breaker to Atlanta (by virtue of a 32-33 loss to them in Week Eight).  So the highest the Packers could climb is the third seed (and it would take Seattle losing to San Francisco for that to happen).

If it comes to a tie-breaker between Detroit and Tampa Bay, Detroit would win on record against common opponents.  The Lions would be 3-2 (beating Los Angeles, New Orleans and Chicago; and losing to Chicago and Dallas).  Tampa Bay would be 2-3 against those same opponents (beating Chicago and New Orleans while losing to Los Angeles, Dallas and New Orleans).

So Tampa Bay isn’t really in the mix, regardless.

Under the most likely scenarios, the NFC seeding should end up Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle, NFC North Champion, NY Giants and Washington.

And who wins the NFC North showdown?  Green Bay.  And they’ll be a dangerous team to deal with in the playoffs.

At least that’s how I see it all playing out.

Cowboys Back to Form in Team Victory over Tampa Bay

With 23 seconds left in the first half, Cowboy quarterback Dak Prescott fired the ball high down the right sideline, well over the head of intended receiver, Dez Bryant.  It was his last incompletion of the evening.  Dak would complete all of his last 12 official passes, as well as a touchdown pass to running back Lance Dunbar that was called back by a holding penalty.  In a complete reversal of form from the previous Sunday night, Prescott was an almost machine-like 32 of 36 passing, leading Dallas to 449 offensive yards and a 26-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

What was the difference between this team and the team that was dominated by the Giants one week earlier?  The Giants’ blueprint isn’t one that every team can follow.  The Giants are skilled enough along the defensive line that they were able to compete with the Cowboy running game for the entire sixty minutes.  They also have enough talented secondary depth that they could blanket the Cowboy receivers – giving them the opportunity to relentlessly blitz Prescott.

The Bucs did exactly none of those things.  Cowboy running back Ezekiel Elliott struck for 5 yards on his initial carry and never slowed down.  He gained 26 yards in Dallas’ first drive (which lasted 5 minutes and 14 seconds), and then gained 11 more in their second drive (that consumed another 5 minutes and 58 seconds).  After battering their way to 78 rushing yards in the first half (48 by Elliott), they ground out another 107 in the second half (with Elliott gaining 111 yards in the second half alone on just 13 carries).

Coaches speak a lot about “complimentary football.”  What happened in Dallas last Sunday night was a textbook example of this phenomenon.

The pounding Dallas running game took the spring out of the pass rush.  With no pass rush, Tampa Bay’s soft zone coverages were repeatedly exposed.  In his 32 for 36 night, Prescott only threw 3 passes more than 15 yards in the air from the line of scrimmage.  Instead, he stood comfortably in his pocket and sliced up the Buc defense with a surgical short passing game.  Tight end Jason Witten never caught a pass for more than 8 yards, but he caught all ten thrown in his direction for a total of 51 yards.

The easiest pickings were usually to whichever side cornerback Brent Grimes lined up, as he almost always left a gap of 8-12 yards between himself and the receiver he was supposed to be covering.

But the run-pass compliment led to an even greater offense-defense compliment.  The Cowboy offense ran 71 plays and consumed 36 minutes and 4 seconds of playing time, forcing the Tampa Bay offense to struggle to find its rhythm.  This was especially true during the game’s first half when the Buccaneer offense saw the field for only 24 plays and just 9 minutes and 40 seconds.

The one time that Tampa Bay did establish a little rhythm – getting the ball to open the second half – they did the things to the Cowboy secondary that most other teams have been doing to them.  (Remembering that Dallas came into the weekend with the twenty-eighth ranked pass defense, allowing 69.7% of the passes thrown against them to be completed.  They had only intercepted five passes the whole season until Sunday night when they picked off three.)

Over the course of Tampa Bay’s first two second half possessions, quarterback Jameis Winston led them on touchdown drives of 75 yards and 81 yards.  After averaging just 4.4 yards per offensive play in the first half, Tampa Bay ripped into the Dallas defense in the third quarter at an average of 9.2 yards per play.  As the trigger man, Winston exposed the Dallas pass defense to the tune of 8 of 11 for 147 yards, with both touchdowns coming on passes (in varying degrees of difficulty).

The Dallas defense re-asserted control in the fourth quarter.  They began by sending a few blitzes, but soon settled back into their comfortable zone defenses.  That was because they discovered that they only needed one man to generate more than sufficient pressure.

That man was David Irving.

At 6-7, there were moments last Sunday night that Irving was somewhat reminiscent of Too Tall Jones as he almost effortlessly moved offending offensive tackles out of his way on his pursuit of Winston.  It’s easy to make too much of this one quarter – given that Tampa Bay had pretty much abandoned the run and they were playing with a backup right tackle (the one that lined up against Irving).  Still, this undrafted player out of Iowa State (who is only 23) has the look of someone who could develop into a significant playmaker.

With two games to play, the Cowboys still stand as a formidable opponent.  This game reinforces a couple of impressions.  First, that you can’t beat the Cowboys unless you can slow the running game.  Second, that the Cowboy pass defense is vulnerable, a weakness that a better opponent may eventually exploit.  Three, the Cowboy run defense (ranked second in the league at the start of the week) may be a little overrated, but is still one of the best run defenses in the league.

I still have a feeling that this Cowboy team is ripe for a playoff upset.  But it will have to be a team that can man up against the Cowboy offensive line.

The NFL Gamebook for this game can be found here; and the Football-Reference Summary is here.

Titans and Patriots Wreak Havoc With the AFC West

I don’t know that I would use the word miracle, but as the fourth quarter commenced in bitterly cold Arrowhead Stadium last Sunday, a Titans’ victory seemed as unlikely as the Electoral College jumping ship and installing Hillary as the President.  They trailed by ten points in a game that began at 1 measly degree above zero with a -19 degree wind chill.  This was a heart-breaking situation for the Titans, whose playoff hopes pretty much depended on somehow coming into Kansas City and winning this game.

Even after the Titans had somehow narrowed the gap to 17-16, victory still seemed out of reach.  With five seconds left. Kicker Ryan Succop lined up what would be a 53-yard field goal attempt into the teeth of that wind – kicking a football that was – by that time – a frozen rock.

Not surprisingly, the kick fell short, and with it Tennessee’s playoff hopes.  But wait!  Kansas City coach Andy Reid had called a timeout just before the kick.  Given another chance, Succop’s kick just eased over the crossbar and sent the Titans into their toasty locker room with a 19-17 victory.

And all of a sudden, the AFC South is theirs to lose.  And just as suddenly, the AFC West grows more chaotic.

With the victory, both Tennessee and Houston sit at 8-6 after the Texans fought their way past the Jacksonville Jaguars 21-20.  Both teams are one game ahead of the 7-7 Indianapolis Colts.  Houston holds the presumptive tie-breaker by virtue of a 27-20 victory over the Titans in Houston back in Week Four.  This week, Tennessee goes into Jacksonville to play the 2-12 Jaguars while Houston hosts the 5-8-1 Cincinnati Bengals.  Nothing in the NFL is a lock – and both the Jaguars and Bengals fought to the end last week.  But if you are a team fighting for that playoff spot, you just can’t lose either of these games.

If both these teams make it to 9-6, they will face off in Week 17 – in Tennessee – to decide the division.  With the Titans trending up and playing at home while the Texans are trending down the onus will be on the Texans – who have just recently benched their ex-starting quarterback – to win in Tennessee.  It’s a tall order.

Even if they lose the division, though, the Texans playoff hopes won’t necessarily end there.  At 9-7 they will be very much alive – thanks to the New England Patriots, who went into Sports Authority Field at Mile High and vanquished the Denver Broncos 16-3, likely ending the Broncos title defense.

As the day in the AFC West began, Kansas City held the division lead at 10-3.  Oakland was also 10-3, but had lost both games against the Chiefs.  While KC was losing, the Raiders survived against San Diego, jumping to 11-3 and taking command not only of the AFC West, but also of the number two seed and its coveted first round bye.

Denver, then 8-5 was still in a solid playoff position – although no longer a viable threat to win the AFC West, provided they could hold serve at home against a New England team that had much less at stake than the Broncos.  Failing to do that dropped them to 8-6 along with Baltimore, Houston and Tennessee (and leaves them a game behind the 9-5 Dolphins).

Two victories will push them to 10-6 and a likely playoff berth, but to do that they will have to win in Kansas City and beat Oakland in Week 17.  Too tough a task, I think, for a not very good Denver team.  More likely is a split of those two games, leaving them as part of a growing logjam at 9-7.

If Houston beats Cincinnati but loses in Tennessee, they will also be 9-7.

Miami plays in Buffalo and at home against New England – easy to see them losing both of those games and finishing 9-7 as well.

If Buffalo beats Miami and then goes into New York and takes care of the Jets – which I can easily see them doing – they will also be 9-7.  One of four such teams that will all be fighting for that final wildcard spot.

Under the NFL tie-breaking procedures in place for just such an eventuality, this mess would be sorted out in two phases.  Phase one would put Buffalo and Miami through the division tie-breaker regimen (as only one team per division can be represented in the wildcard tie-breaking process).  The survivor of the Buffalo-Miami process will then participate in the tie-breaking process with Houston and Denver.

Phase two will only take two steps, but the Buffalo/Miami contest will last until Step 5 of the division process.  A Buffalo win over Miami in Buffalo will square the season series between the clubs (Step One); even up their division records – both will then be 3-3 in the division (Step Two); even their record against common opponents – both will be 7-5 in those games (Step Three); and even both conference records at 6-6 (Step Four). Step Five compares respective Strength of Victory Index.  This is essentially adding up the wins of the teams beaten by Buffalo or Miami.  Here, finally, the tie is broken as the teams that Buffalo has beaten (New England [14], Miami [9], Arizona [6.5], Cincinnati [6.5], Los Angeles [5], NY Jets [4], Jacksonville [2] and San Francisco [1] – using their projected final season victory total, with ties counting for .5 wins) total 48 wins.  Miami’s nine victims (Pittsburgh [11], Buffalo [9], San Diego [7], Arizona [6.5], Los Angeles [5], NY Jets [4] twice and San Francisco [1]) total up to 47.5.

Plugging Buffalo into the wildcard tie-breaker, the first step is a head-to-head sweep.  This is a situation where one of the teams would have either beaten both the other two teams or lost to both the other two teams.  Denver did beat Houston, 27-9, but neither team played Buffalo.  So this tie will go to Step Two – Conference Record.  There, Houston gains the advantage.  Splitting their last two games will give them a 7-5 conference record, better than the 6-6 mark that both Buffalo and Denver would compile under this scenario.

It’s complex – and a lot of things can change in two weeks – but with the finish line in sight I think Tennessee and Houston hold slight advantages and that Denver will probably be outside looking in come playoff time.

One huge caveat is the last game of the season between the Dolphins and Patriots.  It is entirely possible that New England will have the conference’s top seed wrapped up by the time they play that last game.  If that is true, and New England plays the game “under wraps,” then the Dolphins chances of winning that game and going into the playoffs at 10-6 improve dramatically.

In the NFC, things have been following a lot closer to the script.  The only shift that I would think to make in the NFC came as a result of Washington’s Monday Night defeat at the hands of the Carolina Panthers.  Washington is now 7-6-1, but finishes the season with winnable games in Chicago against the 3-win Bears and a home game against the Giants.  New York sits at 10-4 and is on a good run, but they don’t impress me as good enough to beat Washington in Washington.  If the Redskins finish at 9-6-1, they will still finish ahead of everyone at 9-7, but will now probably have to settle for the second wildcard spot, yielding the first to the Giants.

Getting to Know the Tennessee Titans

In a sense, it’s a bit ironic that the Tennessee Titans are playing their two most significant games in many years the same week that their former coach, Jeff Fisher, has paid for the sins of the Rams’ franchise with his job.

Fisher, of course, was the original coach of the Tennessee Titans (nee Oilers) after the franchise abandoned Houston following the 1996 season (twenty years ago, now).  He led them to the franchise’s only Super Bowl appearance following the 1999 season (losing, ironically, to the Rams – then located in St Louis).  Jeff was 142-120 over all or parts of 17 different regular seasons with the Oilers/Titans franchise, and 5-6 with them in the playoffs.

Neither the Titans nor Fisher had really done all that well since they split up.  Fisher was in the midst of what would have been his fifth consecutive losing season for the Rams (another team that moved while he coached them) – finishing with a 31-45 record for them.  Meanwhile, the Titans have had four consecutive losing seasons under three different head coaches (including going 5-27 over the last two years) before this season – their first full season under Mike Mularkey.

With losses in three of their first four games, there was little reason to think this season would be much different in Tennessee.  Even as they won four of the next six – evening their record to 5-5 – it was hard to generate too much excitement about them.  The victories came over the Miami Dolphins (another team that started off slowly), two tepid teams in Cleveland and Jacksonville, and a Green Bay team that seemed at the time (Week 10) to be falling apart.  When they lost the next week in Indianapolis, it dropped their record to 5-6, with two of the losses to the Colts.  They squared their record at 6-6 the next week with a win over another bad team in Chicago.

That victory, however, created a three-way tie at the top of the AFC South Division – Houston, Indianapolis and Tennessee all 6-6.  The bad news in all of this was that the Titans trailed in tie breakers to both of the other teams.  Making the playoffs for Tennessee will almost certainly mean finishing with a better record than both of the other teams.  With that as the mandate, they entered December with four make-or-break games, needing probably, to will all four.  And the schedule before them not at all easy.

It began last week with a home game against the defending world champions.  It continues this week in Kansas City, followed by a road game in Jacksonville and a home game against Houston the last game of the season.

Tennessee survived the first of those contests, holding off the Broncos 13-10.  In a sense, the game almost took the form of a “coming out” party for franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota.  He kept the ball on designed runs five times in the first half, accounting for 41 yards.   He lined up at wide receiver and sprinted up the field on a pass route (making a very good play to break up an underthrown pass).  He showed a great range of skills, not quite including passing – as he completed only 6 of 20 passes for just 88 yards.

Still, to understand Tennessee, you have to understand that Mariota and the passing game are not the focus.  Twelve games into the season, in a league where it is almost impossible to run more than you throw, the Titans have thrown 401 passes and run the ball 398 times.  Against all NFL teams, they currently rank twenty-fifth in passing yards, but third in rushing yards.  They are also third defending the run. Against Denver, the Titans rolled up 180 running yards and held the Broncos to 18.  Mariota will develop as he develops, but Mularkey has left little doubt that the foundation of their future success will be a pounding running game and a run defense that will force opposing offenses into being one dimensional.

With their playoff hopes essentially riding on this Sunday’s game in Kansas City, this formula could actually play very well.  The Chiefs don’t run the ball very well (they are twenty-fifth in the league) and they don’t stop the run very well (they are twenty-seventh in the league).  If Tennessee can reduce this game to a line of scrimmage game, they will have a real chance.  Up against them will be a Kansas City team that has a lot of big-game experience, playing in one of the toughest atmospheres for road teams to play in, in one of the coldest spots on the planet come Sunday, and against a quarterback in Alex Smith who is consistently underrated.  If they push their way past KC and into the playoffs, they will certainly have earned it.

Oh the Weather Outside is Frightful

With December comes the first set of games that are profoundly affected by winter.  Of these the most compelling was Pittsburgh’s 27-20 win over Buffalo played in a steady snow storm.

The Bills came into the game built for these kinds of conditions.  They were averaging 161.9 rushing yards a game and had scored 23 rushing touchdowns.  In the first half of that game, quarterback Tyrod Taylor threw only 8 passes while the Bills ran for 63 yards on 13 attempts.  The Steelers – who have become a predominant passing team over the last several seasons – also ran 13 times (for 77 yards) in the first half, while having Ben Roethlisberger throw the ball 26 times with minimal success (14 completions, 162 yards, no touchdowns and 2 interceptions).

In the second half, as the snow progressively encroached over the playing field, the two teams switched strategies.  The Bills completely abandoned their running game, running five times the entire second half, while putting the ball in Taylor’s hands for 17 passes.  Meanwhile, Roethlisberger threw only 5 times in the second half – tossing one more interception along the way.

He didn’t need to throw more than that, as the Steelers turned Le’Veon Bell loose in the winter wonderland that Heinz Field had become.  Bell carried the ball 25 times for 159 yards and a touchdown.  And that was just the second half.  For the game, Le’Veon finished with 38 carries, 236 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns to go with four pass receptions for another 62 yards through the air.

Throughout the game, Buffalo – which plays its home games in one of the snowiest cities in America – seemed decidedly uncomfortable playing in the stuff.  And why they decided to stop running the ball remains a mystery to me.  Running the ball is not only the thing that Buffalo does best, it was also what the elements seemed to call for.  At the very least, it would have given the Bills’ defense (which was on the field for 38:41 of the games sixty minutes) a little bit of a breather.

Other Teams Uncomfortable in the Cold

Taking nothing away from tremendous defensive efforts by the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers, but the two teams they beat last Sunday (the Dallas Cowboys and the Seattle Seahawks) were both getting their first real taste of cold weather this season and both teams looked unprepared for it.  This seemed especially true for the Seahawk receivers who let a bevy of passes slip through their fingers – several of which ended up as interceptions.

The elements are a great equalizer.  Teams that play in warm weather or in domes frequently find it difficult to execute in the cold and snow.  Something to keep an eye on going forward.

Did Anyone Else Notice the Tape on Derek Carr’s Finger?

The Oakland Raiders were another warm weather team playing in the cold (in Kansas City) last week.  They also played below their norm.  In the post-game interview, they asked Raider quarterback Derek Carr several times about the impact of the cold on the passing game. Carr dismissed the effect, all they while gesturing with his right hand (his passing hand) that featured his pinkie finger taped to the next finger for support.  During the game, they weren’t taped together, but that pinkie was heavily wrapped.  No one asked if that affected his play.

I will not pretend to be an expert on quarterback play or the mechanics of throwing a football.  But my rudimentary understanding of the process suggests that that pinkie finger is pretty important in helping the passer control the flight of the football.  And in Carr’s case, it was his accuracy that was the problem as he was consistently high and wide all night on his way to completing just 17 of his 41 passes (including just 7 of 23 in the second half).

I think it’s entirely possible that the Raiders had struggles with the weather.  It’s also possible that it’s really hard to play quarterback against one of the best pass defenses in the NFL with the pinkie finger on your throwing hand taped up.

Just saying.

How the Giants Playoff Chances Improved

For most of the season, the New York Giants have been sitting snugly in one of the NFC wildcard spots.  Until now, I have been hesitant to embrace them as a likely playoff contestant.  After an uninspiring 2-3 start, the Giants pushed themselves into contention with a 6-game winning streak that came at the expense of some fairly suspect opponents.  They squeaked past Baltimore at home (27-23) before Baltimore figured things out and started playing well.  They eased past a bad Rams team, 17-10.  They just got past a fading Philadelphia team, 28-23.  They finished the winning streak against three straight sub-.500 teams – Cincinnati (21-20), Chicago (22-16), and winless Cleveland (27-13).

Now 8-3, New York faced a quality opponent – the Pittsburgh Steelers – and fell quietly 24-14.  Still 8-4, the tie-breakers didn’t favor them at 9-7.  To earn their playoff berth, the Giants would have to go at least 2-2 down the stretch.  As the stretch drive included games against Dallas, Detroit and a road game in Washington, this under-performing team seemed unlikely to squeeze two wins out of this schedule.  Somewhere in this stretch, they would have to “find” a win against a better team.

They found that win Sunday night when they fought their way past the Dallas Cowboys 10-7.

Even in this moment of triumph, the Giants managed to be mostly unconvincing.  While scoring only ten points, they left two other touchdowns on the field when Odell Beckham Jr. dropped a sure touchdown pass and when the ball slipped out of Eli Manning’s had as he had a receiver breaking open behind the defense.  Eli also threw at least three other passes right into the hands of would-be interceptors (all dropped) – so the Giant offense continues to invite concern.

Defensively, the Giants dominated the Cowboys.  It’s hard to say that when Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott ran for 107 yards, but make no mistake.  Dallas was dominated on offense.

After a dominating early season, the Cowboys finished their eleven-game winning streak with wins that were 3 parts grit and determination and 2 parts luck.  Since they went into their bye with a 5-1 record, the Cowboys’ defense has been frequently exposed.  Three times in the first five games after their bye, Dallas surrendered 23 points or more.  Even though they held Minnesota to 15 points in a Week 13 win, the Vikings still kept the Cowboy offense on the sideline as they ran 69 offensive plays and controlled the clock for 33:17.  Blessed with better red-zone execution (and, perhaps, a roughing-the-passer call on a two-point conversion attempt) the Vikings would have won that game.

The Giant’s lacked enough offense to take advantage of the Cowboy defense, but they did provide something of a blue-print for dousing the Cowboy offense – if there’s another defense out there that can do what they did.

First and most importantly, they competed with the Cowboy running game for the whole sixty minutes.  Elliott had his moments.  He had four rushes of at least 13 yards.  Those rushes accounted for 55 of Elliott’s yards.  His other 20 rushes accounted for just 52 yards.  In fairness, the Cowboys made it easy on the Giants in this regard.  After Elliott carried 15 times for 86 first-half yards, the Cowboys only gave him 9 second-half carries, only once giving him the ball on consecutive plays.  Thus Dallas never gave the Giants defense a chance to wear down, preferring instead to place their fortunes on the arm of quarterback Dak Prescott – who struggled to a 17-for-37, 165 yard game that featured three sacks and two interceptions.

Conventional wisdom might hold that defenses are adjusting to Dallas’ intriguing rookie quarterback.  That’s not what I saw Sunday night.  What I saw was a Giant defense that blitzed relentlessly – a risky strategy that worked because the New York defensive backs were spectacular in covering the Cowboy receivers.  Whether it was Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley or Jason Witten, none of the Cowboy receivers had any success in gaining any separation.  In the absence of the consistent running game, Prescott was faced with persistent heat in the pocket and covered receivers – conditions that would challenge the best and most experienced quarterbacks.

At 11-2, Dallas is still two games ahead in the chase for the top seed in its conference.  With three games left, it would take an impressive collapse for them to fall out of that position.  But Dallas has been scuffling lately, so it will be interesting to see how they do in the playoffs.

In the meantime, the Giants now need to win just one of their last three to pretty much assure their playoff berth.  This is a disappointing development for Tampa Bay, who had recently fought their way into serious playoff contention.  After surviving New Orleans last week, Tampa Bay is now 8-5.  But 9-7 will probably not be enough to get them in.  At 10-6 they would probably get a tie-breaker in conference record, but their closing schedule is daunting.  They have consecutive road games in Dallas and New Orleans followed by a home game against Carolina.  Finding two wins in those three games will prove a challenge.  They will now have to do what the Giants did – find a way to win a game they probably shouldn’t.

Houston or Tennessee?

Also last Sunday, the Tennessee Titans came up big against the Denver Broncos (a 13-10 win).  This leaves them tied for the lead in their division.  Unfortunately, in spite of the win, their playoff stock diminished as the Houston Texans came through with a surprising 22-17 road victory over Indianapolis.  Both Houston and Tennessee are 7-6.  Tennessee will host Houston on the last game of the season.  Before that game, Houston will have winnable home games against Jacksonville and Cincinnati.  If they win both of those games, they will head into that final showdown with a 9-6 record and a 5-0 division record.  The best the Titans can do in the division is 3-3 if they beat both Jacksonville and Houston.

This means that 9-7 will likely not be good enough.  Tennessee will pretty much need to win out to take the division title – their most realistic path to the playoffs.  That places Tennessee’s real playoff hopes squarely on this Sunday afternoon’s contest against the Chiefs.  In Kansas City.  If the Titans are going to make it, they will certainly earn it.

Will Tampa Bay Make the Playoffs?

In Week Nine of the 2016 NFL season, the Atlanta Falcon’s completely dismantled the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 43-28.  At that point, Tampa Bay was 3-5.  They were already 2.5 games behind the then 6-3 Falcons and frankly they looked pretty terrible.

Especially on defense.  Of their first seven opponents, only two (Carolina and San Francisco) failed to score at least 24 points against them, while the Buc defense was scorched for 30 points or more four times – including two games where they surrendered 40 or more.  In yardage allowed, only the 49ers failed to gain at least 300 against them, while on four other occasions their opponents soared to over 400 yards of offense against them.

This number includes a 626-yard pasting (498 through the air and 128 on the ground) administered by the Oakland Raiders the week before the Bucs were sliced and diced by the Falcons.  To that point of the season, Tampa Bay was allowing 398.9 yards per game (281.0 passing and 117.9 rushing) and 29.0 points per game.  Any discussion of Tampa Bay as a playoff contender would have elicited giggles.

Since that point, Tampa Bay has won four in a row.  And the defense has been the hero.  In victories over the Bears, Chiefs, Seahawks and Chargers, Tampa Bay allowed just 13.3 points per game while cutting the passing yards against to 187.75.

Now, Tampa Bay sits tied with Atlanta atop their division – and since two of those victories have come at the expense of teams fighting for first round byes (Seattle and Kansas City) – this team has to be taken seriously.

Two of their final four games are a home-and-away set against New Orleans.  The Saints have lost three of their last four, so it’s tempting to call for a Tampa Bay sweep.  I’m not sure the Bucs have been that convincing.  They are 5-1 on the road, but only 2-4 at home.  Right now, this still looks like a split to me.

Their other road game is in Dallas.  I do feel the Cowboys will stub their toes a bit before the playoffs, but the Bucs will still have to go into that game as underdogs.  This would bring them to 8-7 going into their last game of the season – at home against Carolina.  The 4-8 Panthers are three games out with four games left.  The Panthers are also the defending NFC Champs.  By the last game of the season, I don’t expect them to still be in playoff contention (although that is still possible), but I do expect to see a lot of pride from them.  Finishing 9-7 will be a challenge for the young Bucs, but if they are the team that they’ve looked like these last four weeks, then this has to be looked at as a winnable game.

So now the question becomes, is 9-7 good enough to get Tampa Bay into the playoffs.  The answer to that question depends in very large part on what happens in Green Bay.

I go back and forth, now, with the Packers.  Two games ago when they dominated Philadelphia on the road, I convinced myself that the Green Bay team that we have expected to see all season had finally figured itself out.  Last Sunday, the Packers were lethargic enough as they squeezed past the fading Houston Texans (at home) 21-13.  The Pack is now 6-6.  For them to hold off the Bucs, Green Bay will have to win at least three of their last four games.  How realistic is that?

In my opinion, not terribly.  Green Bay’s closing schedule isn’t unfathomably difficult, but it is tough enough for an up-and-down team.  This week they have Seattle.  Most of the time, Seattle is one of the elite teams in the league.  Last week I speculated that the Packers might be favored in this contest.  Now, I’m backing off of that.  Next, they are on the road against Chicago.  The Bears are playing a little better recently and the Pack is 2-4 on the road.  They then finish against the other two teams that are vying for the top of the NFC North Division, Minnesota and Detroit.

If they lose any two of those games (which, I think, is likely), they open the door for Tampa Bay to slip through.  Under this scenario, I still like the Redskins to hold onto the fifth seed, with the sixth seed coming down to Tampa Bay or Minnesota.

The Vikings are currently 6-6, but their closing schedule is comparatively soft.  They have one notably tough road game left (in Green Bay).  Their other road game takes them into Jacksonville this week – a very winnable contest.  Their home games are against Indianapolis and Chicago.  A 3-1 finish is very predictable, making them a likely 9-7 team.  If all of this plays out, the Buccaneers will take the tie breaker on Strength of Victory – meaning that the teams they will have beaten project to have more wins than the teams that Minnesota will have beaten.  It’s an exceedingly narrow edge.  But it is an edge.

Atlanta Loses Advantage

In other playoff developments, I speculated last week that Tampa Bay’s win over Seattle might have given Atlanta an inside track to the second seed in the NFC.  If true, the Falcons saw that edge evaporate Sunday morning when they lost a home thriller to Kansas City, 29-28.  Kansas City is quite a good team, but if you are going to get the second seed in your conference and you have the Chiefs at home, you need to win that game.  Seattle regains the inside track to the second seed.  For this week, anyway.

Will the Titans Make the Playoffs?

A couple weeks ago, Greg Rosenthal – a regular contributor to NFL.com – stated that the Tennessee Titans would be making the playoffs.  I was skeptical.  Tennessee is improved.  Defensively, they are nothing special, but good enough to see a 9-7 finish.  They have winnable home games against Denver (not playing to their Super Bowl form of last year) and the fading Houston Texans.  Of their road games, they should also beat Jacksonville.  The other road game in Kansas City is probably too much to ask of this young team, but still a 3-1 finish puts them at 9-7.

The major fly in the Titans ointment is the fact that they have lost both games to Indianapolis this season (costing them the tie-breaker there).  They will also, probably, lose a tie-breaker with Houston.  Even if they beat the Texans in Week 17, their division record will still sit at only 3-3.  Houston is currently 3-0 in its division and would have to lose all of its remaining division games (including a home game against Jacksonville) to lose its tie-breaker with Tennessee.  So if either of those teams also finished 9-7, they would go to the playoffs ahead of the Titans.

If Tennessee ends up with an invite to the dance, they will look back to Week Twelve as the week when fortunes tilted in their direction.  The Chicago Bears gave them more trouble than expected, but Tennessee prevailed (27-21) while both of their principle rivals had winnable contests get away from them.  Indianapolis picked a tough week to play without Andrew Luck, as they fell to Pittsburgh 28-7.  Meanwhile, Houston failed at home against a beatable San Diego team, falling 21-13.

These results leave Houston a half-game ahead in the division (6-5) and Indianapolis (at 5-6) trailing both.  Houston has three difficult road games remaining in Green Bay, Indianapolis and Tennessee.  They will need to win one of those, along with their remaining home games against Jacksonville and Cincinnati to tie Tennessee at 9-7.  Indianapolis also has three tricky road games left against the Jets in New York, in Minnesota and in Oakland.  I don’t see them winning in Oakland, which means they would have to win both of the other two – along with their remaining home games against Houston and Jacksonville – to tie the Titans at 9-7.

They are not home free, by any means, but I think the Titans playoff chances are much improved.  They now have the inside track in that division.  If they win the games they should win, they will be tough to catch.  That list, however, includes their Week Fourteen matchup at home against the Denver Broncos.  That game, and the last game of the season against Houston, will likely decide Tennessee’s fate.

If the Titans go in, it would probably be as the four-seed, pushing Pittsburgh to number three.

The Watershed Packers-Eagles Game

One of the challenges presented by the week-to-week NFL is knowing which games to believe and which to throw away.  Last Monday night, Green Bay went into Philadelphia and dominated them, 27-13.  So, what sense do we make of this?  Since this is the kind of performance we’ve expected all year from the Packers, do we assume that the Pack is back?  Doing this ignores the 4-6 start, and especially discounts the four-game losing streak that preceded Monday night’s victory.  In those four games, the Packer defense was carved up for 38.25 points per game and 420.75 yards per game (300.75 passing yards and 120 rushing yards).  Against Philadelphia, they surrendered 13 points and 292 yards (211 passing and 81 rushing).

The other interpretation, of course, is that this is just the continuation of the slide that Philadelphia has been in since their 3-0 start.  Monday’s loss was their sixth in the last eight games, and leaves them also 5-6 on the season.

If the Packers have figured some things out and can start to get a little defensive consistency, then a playoff spot is still there for the taking.  This week they play Houston at home – a very winnable game that could even their record at 6-6.  Then they have Seattle at home.  Seattle – as we’ll discuss later – is another team that we have to make a decision about.  At the moment – since this game is played at Lambeau Field – let’s assume the Packers prevail.  Now, they would be 7-6.  After that, they play in Chicago against a fairly dismal Bears team and then come home to play the fading Vikings.  They should win both of those games, too, pushing them to 9-6.  The last game is a road game in Detroit.  This Packer team will have to show me a little more improvement before I see them winning a road game in Detroit.  Even with that loss, though, I think Green Bay has an excellent shot at a 4-1 finish that would push them to 9-7 for the season.  Will that be enough?

I just mentioned that the Vikings were fading.  They lost in Detroit on Thanksgiving 16-13, dropping them to 6-5 on the season – a game up, still, on the Packers even though they have now lost 5 of their last 6.  They have a road game coming up against Jacksonville that they should win and I would make them favorites at home against Indianapolis and Chicago.  But they also have a home game tonight against the Dallas Cowboys and a Week Sixteen road game in Green Bay.  To stay ahead of the Pack, they would have to win at least one of these, but I wouldn’t favor them in either match-up.  So Minnesota is, I think, a strong candidate to finish 9-7 as well.

After their Thanksgiving win against the Vikings, Detroit now leads the division at 7-4, one up on Minnesota and two up on Green Bay.  The end of their schedule, though, is very treacherous with challenging road games in New Orleans, New York (to face the Giants), and Dallas.  They would need to author one upset in that group along with winning home division games against Chicago and Green Bay to win the division outright.  Otherwise, they, too, will finish 9-7.

Should the NFC North end in a 3-way tie at 9-7, who would have the tie-breaker?  It would be Detroit.  Assuming they win that last game (at home) against Green Bay to force the tie, they will be 3-1 among those teams (they have already beaten Minnesota twice).  Green Bay then holds the tie-breaker over the Vikings as Minnesota (losers of 3 of their first 4 division games) will almost certainly finish with a worse division record than the Pack.

So, with Detroit now in the driver’s seat to win the division, will 9-7 get Green Bay a wildcard spot?  As of last week, I was still fairly bullish on the Eagles.  In spite of their losing streak, they were still playing very well against good teams.  The bad home loss on Monday night has pushed them to 5-6.  If they finish at 9-7 with Green Bay, they Packers will get the playoff nod on the strength of their head-to-head victory.  So, for Philadelphia to maintain their playoff spot, they would have to win out.  This would mean winning road games in Cincinnati and Baltimore (against the up-trending Ravens) as well as tough division home games against Washington, the Giants and Dallas.  Too tall an order, I think.

If the Redskins finish 9-6-1 (they are currently 6-4-1 but have three probable victories ahead with home games against Carolina and the Giants, and a probable road win in Chicago), Washington would get the first wildcard spot.

The Giants, by the way, are currently 8-3 and sitting in the first wildcard spot.  Their closing schedule, though, is brutal.  This week they go into Pittsburgh.  Then they are home against Dallas and Detroit.  They then finish on the road against Philadelphia and Washington.  Their current record is the result of a six-game winning streak that they have fashioned against less-than-convincing opponents (the Rams, Bengals, Bears and Browns).  If the Giants win two of the five remaining games on their rugged closing schedule, they will almost certainly make the playoffs.  If they finish 9-7, they will probably do so with a 6-6 conference record which won’t be good enough to qualify.

And Seattle?

I mentioned the Seahawks earlier.  With quarterback Russell Wilson finally healthy, the ‘Hawks had won three in a row (including a win in New England) and looked like, perhaps, the best team in football while doing it.  Last Sunday they were stunned by Tampa Bay.  A meaningless loss? Probably.  Except this team, which is now 5-0 at home, is only 2-3-1 on the road.  Does a mediocre road team go into Green Bay and beat an up-trending Packer team?  Right now I don’t think so.

So if Seattle wins all their other games except the Green Bay game, they would finish 11-4-1.  Good enough for the number two seed?  Maybe not.  The Atlanta Falcons are currently 7-4, with three of their last five at home (against Kansas City, San Francisco and New Orleans) and winnable road games in Los Angeles and Carolina.  Atlanta has a real shot at the second seed.

Kansas City Scrambles the West Again

One week after determining that Kansas City had lost its grip on its division, they won it back with a gritty (and lucky) upset in Denver Sunday night.  So, now, how does the wild, wild AFC West play out?  Oakland still leads the division at 9-2.  The timing of their season, so far, has been impeccable.  Many of the teams they beat early in the season were bad teams at the time, but have since started to figure things out (New Orleans, Tennessee, Baltimore, Tampa Bay).  Then later in the season, Oakland has played a couple of teams that had started the season strong, but were fading (Denver and Houston).  The Raiders have been exciting on both offense and defense this year.  Maybe I should have said scary on defense.  They play an admirably tough closing schedule with home games against Buffalo and Indianapolis and road games against all three of their division opponents (Kansas City, San Diego and Denver).  If they are the cream of this division, they will have an opportunity to prove it.

One game behind Oakland, now, is Kansas City at 8-3.  Their closing schedule is also challenging, but softer (road games in Atlanta and San Diego and home games against Oakland Tennessee and Denver).  Since Kansas City beat Oakland in Oakland, they could clinch the division tie-breaker if they beat the Raiders at home in Week Fourteen.  That win in Oakland gives them a leg up, not just for the division title, but for the second seed in the conference.

Denver is now 7-4 and, I think, fading.  Their remaining schedule is the most challenging of the three, making it all the harder for them to catch up.  They have a road game against Jacksonville, but also must travel to Tennessee and Kansas City.  Their remaining home schedule is New England and Oakland.  For the moment, I still have them in that final playoff spot, but Buffalo is lurking in the shadows, should the Broncos continue to slip.