Another Losing Team in the Playoffs?

As there is no mechanism for keeping a losing team out of the NFL playoffs, it is a curiosity that does occur from time to time.  Usually, though, when it happens, it happens the way it did four years ago – the last time a losing team received a playoff invitation.

In 2014 the NFC had no shortage of winning teams.  That season, there were six NFC clubs with 10 wins or more.  But only five of them made it into the dance.  The 10-6 Philadelphia Eagles were forced to the sideline in favor of the 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers.

The NFL is now four, five-team divisions, with the champion of each division assured of a playoff spot.  It sometimes happens – as it did four years ago – that all the citizens of one of these division will have struggling years and none of them will finish over .500.  The NFC South was such a division that year, with the Panthers edging the 7-9 New Orleans Saints and the 6-10 Atlanta Falcons.  Tampa Bay – also in that division – was a non-factor at 2-14.

While the equity of this situation could be argued, it is what it is – and playoff opportunities sometimes hinge on what division you are in.  As I said, though – pretty rare.

In fact, in the entire history of the NFL it has only happened twice in full seasons.  In 2010, a 7-9 Seattle team advanced to the playoffs under similar circumstances.  They were the best of a bad division, while the New York Giants and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – both 10-6 – stayed home. (The footnote here excludes the strike-interrupted season of 1982, in which two 4-5 teams made the playoffs.)

So what may happen this season – again, in the NFC – would be unique in the long and storied history of the NFL.  Rather than inviting the best of a poor division, the NFC may send a losing team to the playoffs because this year, the NFC may not manage to field six teams that can at least play .500 ball.

There is no such issue in the AFC, which will probably end up with three 9-7 teams (two of which will miss the playoffs) and two other 8-8 teams. But – in a football sense, anyway – the middle class is starting to disappear (temporarily at least) from the NFC.

With three weeks left in the regular season, the NFC has five teams with winning records.  All five are guaranteed to finish at least at .500.  The Saints and the Rams are both 11-2 and have clinched their divisions.  Chicago leads the North with a 9-4 record, and Dallas – at 8-5 – is the likely winner in the East.  After them, the Seattle Seahawks (8-5), will likely earn the top wildcard spot.

And after them?

The last playoff spot is currently in the arms of the Minnesota Vikings.  They are right at .500 (6-6-1), but the tie means that they cannot finish exactly at .500 (unless they play to another tie somewhere along the line).  They can, of course, still finish over .500, but to do that they would need to win at least two of their last three.  They are the first of several NFC teams that could finish .500 or better, but all will have to win at least two of their final three – and none of them seem to be very likely candidates to do that.

Let’s begin with the Vikings.  Their stretch drive begins this Sunday at home against Miami.  Not a given by any means – just ask the Patriots – but since the game is at home, you would lean toward the Viking here.  But after that? Detroit on the road and Chicago at home.  Nothing about Minnesota suggests to me that they are enough better than the Lions to be favored to beat them in Detroit.  Nor should they be a match for the Bears – even if they are at home.  It’s not unimaginable that Minnesota could win one of those games.  But it truly isn’t likely.  Minnesota is probably on track to finish 7-8-1.

Behind them are the fading Carolina Panthers, now 6-7 after losing five games in a row.  Bad enough.  Two of their final three games are against the high-flying New Orleans Saints – not necessarily a team you want to try to break a long losing streak against.  If they could manage to win one of those, their other remaining game is a winnable contest against Atlanta at home.  But it’s hard to see this Carolina team beat this Saints team anywhere.  If New Orleans has home field advantage all wrapped up by Week 17, then that could play to the Panthers’ advantage.  In that scenario, the Saints might be playing under wraps with an eye towards being healthy for the playoffs.  But the battle between New Orleans and Los Angeles for that top spot will most likely run through to the end of the season, so a going-through-the-motions final game from New Orleans is improbable.  Carolina is likely looking at 7-9.

After them are the defending champions from Philadelphia – also 6-7.  They get to play Sunday night in Los Angeles against a Ram team that will be smarting after their loss to the Bears last Sunday night.  Doesn’t bode well for the Eagles.  After that, they get the Houston Texans – a 9-4 team that has also played better than the Eagles all season.  They close against Washington – but in Washington.  The Redskins are hurting at quarterback, and may not be able to put up much of a struggle – even at home – but unless this limping Eagle team can find a way to get a win against either the Rams or Texans, even a season ending win in Washington won’t leave them any better than 7-9.

Those Redskins are next on the list – also 6-7.  They close at Jacksonville, at Tennessee and home against the Eagles.  The Titans are beginning to surge again, and shouldn’t lose at home to this Washington team.  The Jags and Eagles might be considered beatable, but with your third-string quarterback?  It’s truly hard to see them finishing better than 7-9.

That brings us to four teams for whom the bar is even higher.  The Green Bay Packers (5-7-1), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-8), the New York Giants (5-8), and the Detroit Lions (5-8) all must win out to avoid finishing with a losing record.  For these teams, winning consecutive games has proved challenging, much less putting together a season-ending three-game winning streak.

The Packers could come close.  Their final two games are against the Jets in New York and at home against Detroit.  It will be their next game that will tell the tale.  Can they go into Chicago this Sunday and beat the Bears?  If not, then the best they could manage would be 7-8-1.

Tampa Bay’s closing schedule is fairly brutal for a 5-8 team.  Their next two are both road games in Baltimore (the Ravens are 7-6) and Dallas.  Had to seeing them winning one of those – much less both.

All of the Giants’ last three games are against teams right in the thick of the playoff hunt.  Two of them are home games, but against the Titans and the Cowboys.  Tough sledding there.  Their road game is just as challenging.  They go into Indianapolis to play the Colts.  New York has played better of late, but it’s truly difficult to imagine them winning all of those games.

Which brings us, finally, to the Lions.  Frankly, honestly, the Lions have a shot – a shocking thing to contemplate in what has been a frustrating year for them.  It’s not hard to see them beating Buffalo – even if that game is on the road.  After that, they draw the Vikings at home – another winnable contest.  But they will then have to go into Green Bay on the last Sunday of the season and beat the Packers.  That might be too great a challenge for this re-tooling Detroit team.

With all of these teams in play, I do believe it is more likely than not that at least one of them will win a game they are not supposed to and give the NFC at least an 8-8 record for its final playoff team.  But this exercise shows – I think – the depth of the upheaval going on in the NFC.  That it is this late in the season and there is still even a reasonable chance that the NFC will be unable to field six teams with at least 8 wins is sobering.

In the NFL, gaps between the haves and the have-nots close very quickly.  Just last year, the Colts and Texans were jostling for last place in their division, looking up at the Jaguars; while the Bears were skidding to 5-11, finishing 8 games behind the Vikings.  Just two years ago, the Chargers, then in San Diego, were 5-11 (they are 10-3 now), the Eagles were 7-9 (they won the Super Bowl the next year), the Saints were 7-9 and the Rams were 4-12.  So it’s premature to suggest that this is the beginning of any kind of long-term trend.

But this level of separation, if it holds – even if only for one year – is unprecedented.  It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Colts ambushed in Jacksonville

Say this about the NFL.  It’s always full of surprises.

After twelve weeks, we are always under the impression that we know who these clubs are.  But, as Week 13 dramatically displayed, in the NFL anything can – and usually does – happen.

On Thursday night, the Dallas Cowboys hosted the high-flying New Orleans Saints.  The Saints boasted the highest scoring offense in football.  On their way to a 10-1 record, the Saints had scored at least 21 points in every game, had scored 30 or more in 9 of the 11, had scored at least 40 six times, with a high of 51 points scored against Cincinnati in Week 10.  They were averaging 37.2 points per game.

On Sunday, the Jacksonville Jaguars – riding a seven game losing streak – would host the suddenly hot Indianapolis Colts.  The Colts were riding a five-game winning streak of their own, and were scoring 33.1 points per game over their last eight.

Just going off of averages, you might expect the Saints and the Colts to combine for around 70 points in their two games.  They totaled 10, as New Orleans was toppled 13-10 and Indy was shut out 6-0.  The story was much the same in both games, as inspired defenses playing desperate football dominated the lines of scrimmage.

That, by the way, is always where you stop unstoppable offenses.  At the line of scrimmage.

The upset of New Orleans doesn’t have a dramatic effect on the NFC playoff race.  Dallas was the NFC East favorite before the game, and has solidified that impression.  The Saints are still 4 games ahead of Carolina and cruising in their division.

But the upset in Jacksonville did quite a lot to shake up the AFC playoff picture, where the quest for the final playoff spot is wide, wide open.

The week began with Indy sporting a 6-5 record and seeming to be in the driver’s seat for that final playoff invite.  Three of their last five games were on the road, but only the game in Houston seemed to be an unlikely win.  Their other two road opponents – Jacksonville and Tennessee – have both been fading.  They would have to play Dallas in Week Fifteen, but that game would be at home where the Colts are getting to be pretty hard to beat.  They also have the Giants at home.

So, as they kicked off in Jacksonville, one could easily imagine this Indianapolis team finishing at 10-6 – better, probably, than any of the other AFC contenders for that spot.

This damaging loss pushes them back into the mess of 9-7 and opens the Pandora’s Box of tie-breakers.

The other teams hovering in the neighborhood are Miami in the East (6-6), Baltimore (7-5) in the North, Tennessee in the South (6-6), and Denver in the West (6-6).  It is certainly a crowded playoff field, but from 6-6 to 9-7 is a steep climb – I climb I think a couple of these teams will be unable to make.

Tennessee is one of those teams that I think will have difficulty reaching 9 wins.  Sloughing through an injury dominated season, quarterback Marcus Mariota’s availability for any particular game will always be in question.  The Titans could very well be in the hunt, but my suspicion is that Mariota will end up missing too much time for that to happen.

I also see the Dolphins fading toward the end.  Their remaining schedule is fairly rugged.  They have New England this week and Minnesota (in Minnesota) next week.  They also end the season in Buffalo  Not that the Bills are the NFL’s scariest teams, but warm weather teams – like the Dolphins – playing in what will probably be bitter conditions in Buffalo at the end of December is not a promising situation.

Left standing should be the Colts, Ravens and Broncos.  Baltimore currently has a one-game lead – they are the 7-5 team in the mix – but have two very difficult road contests looming.  They are in Kansas City this week and make a Week 16 trip into Los Angeles to play the Chargers.  They would have to win at least one of those and take both of their home games (against Tampa Bay and Cleveland) to reach the ten-win plateau.

Denver’s remaining schedule is enticingly soft.  Two of their next three are on the road, but in San Francisco and Oakland – two teams having difficult times this season.  In between they have a home game against Cleveland.  They also finish at home, but against the high-flying Chargers.  If they win out, they probably win the spot – but I don’t think they will win out.

So that brings us – possibly – to the end of the season with Indianapolis, Baltimore and Denver all at 9-7.  If so, who gets the playoff spot?

Head-to-head sweep is the first tie breaking category.  For this to determine the Wild-Card team, one team would have had to have beaten both of the others, or lost to both of the others.  Baltimore and Denver met earlier this year – with Baltimore winning 27-14, but neither of those teams have or will play Indianapolis.

That sends us to the second tie-breaker.  Conference record.

Currently, Baltimore sits at 6-3 in the conference with three games to play, while Indy is 5-5 against the AFC with two to play, and Denver is 4-5 in conference with three to go.

So, for Denver to take the wildcard in this scenario, they would have to win all of their remaining conference games, while Baltimore loses all of their last three and Indy does no better than a split.

But Baltimore’s last game is an AFC contest against Cleveland at home.  Hard to see them losing that game with a playoff berth at stake.  I also don’t think I believe in Denver enough yet to predict them beating the Chargers in Week 17.

So, assuming Baltimore finishes at 7-5 in the conference, that would mean Indy would have to win both of their AFC games to force another round of tie-breakers.  That would mean the Colts would have to win this Sunday in Houston.  Again, my belief level in the Colts is not quite that high.

If it all plays out like this, that will slip the Ravens into that last wildcard spot.  If that happens, then the Colts will have reason to remember last Sunday’s loss in Jacksonville for quite a while.

Concerns in Chicago

The game had come to this.

The Chicago Bears – playing without their franchise quarterback Mitchell Trubisky – were clinging to a 23-16 lead.  There was one minute left in the game.

The Bears faced a third-and-9 on their own 21, with Detroit holding one final time out.  A stop here, a quick time out, and a punt would give Detroit about 50 seconds and relatively good field position for one last shot.

After Bears’ running back Tarik Cohen started up the middle, he broke sharply to his right and (with the help of a sealing block by tight end Ben Braunecker) turned the corner on Detroit. Also downfield blocking on the play was left guard James Daniels.  He was trying to clear defensive back Darius Slay out of the way.  His block wasn’t so successful.  (This, by the way, had been a recurring theme during the game).

As Cohen approached the 27-yard line, he cut sharply inside, avoiding Slay, but running straight into his blocker Daniels.  Still 3 yards short of the first down, the running back pushed his offensive lineman backwards.  For his part, Daniels wrapped his arms around Cohen and half shielded/half drug Cohen to the first down marker, and just a yard beyond.  First down, Chicago.  And that was the game (gamebook) (box score).

That run – officially marked as 10 yards – was also Chicago’s only running play of the afternoon to reach double digits.

As the season started and the Chicago Bears began their rise from obscurity, one of the most impressive aspects of the team was its balance.  Trubisky, in just his second year, was growing up rapidly and was blessed with an impressive running attack in a game plan that emphasized balance.

Culminating with their Week Eight victory over the Jets (in which they ran for 179 yards) Chicago was averaging 137.6 rushing yards per game.  At that point, they were the NFL’s third-ranked rushing offense, averaging 4.67 yards per running attempt.

Abruptly, though, the Chicago running game regressed.

It began innocuously enough in their next game against Buffalo.  The Bears won in blowout fashion, 41-9, and Chicago was up 28-0 at the half.  The game featured two touchdowns contributed by the Bear defense and 292 total yards in accepted penalties.  The Bears were flagged 14 times for 129 yards.  The Bills only drew 10 penalties, but for 163 yards.

So, very little about that game resembled a normal contest.  At the end of the day, when Chicago’s 25 running plays had only accounted for 64 yards, it was easy to shrug off.  With the big early lead, both teams knew that Chicago would spend most of the rest of the game running the ball and working the clock.

The next week against Detroit, however, things didn’t get appreciably better.  As with the Thanksgiving Day game, the Lions had answers for everything that Chicago tried to do on the ground.  The Bears finished with just 54 yards to show for their 22 running plays.  They managed no run longer than 9 yards in that one, so Cohen’s game-sealing run – at a modest ten yards – was the longest running play the Bears managed in two games against Detroit.  Chicago still won that game 34-22 on the arm of Trubisky, who threw for 355 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Concerns about the running game seemed to evaporate the next week.  Chicago outlasted Minnesota 25-20 in a game that saw them run for 148 yards.  This set up the re-match last Thursday in Detroit – this time without Trubisky.

So, if you’re like me, you’re thinking that with a backup quarterback – Chase Daniel – on a short week where he hasn’t had opportunity to work with any of the receivers – and with a running game that is getting back on track – you would think that the run game would be an important part of the game plan.  Especially against a defense ranked twenty-fourth against the run, allowing 125 rushing yards a game and 4.8 yards a rush.

So the first surprise here is that Chicago never even tried to run the ball against the Lions.  In 11 of their first 12 plays, they put the ball in Daniel’s hands.  Early in the third quarter, Cohen and Jordan Howard carried the ball on consecutive plays.  Thirty plays into the game, and this was the first time Chicago would call consecutive running plays.  Then 17 of the next 18 were passes.  It wasn’t until they got the ball back with 1:07 left in the game that they ran on consecutive downs again. Cohen’s icing run came on the third straight running play.

Not counting Chase’s final kneel down, Chicago called passes on 43 of 56 plays.

That was surprise number one.

Surprise number two was that when they did try to run the ball, they did so poorly.  Taking away the final kneel-down and one 2-yard scramble, Chicago’s 13 called run plays generated 37 yards – less than three per rush.

On Chicago’s very first running play, Detroit lineman Romeo Okwara drove Bears’ left tackle Charles Leno right back into the running back’s lap.  During Chicago’s attempt to run out that last minute, Leno had an opportunity to push open a cutback lane for Howard, but couldn’t get any movement on A’Shawn Robinson.  The very next run showed some promise, but needed Leno to get quickly off his double-team block and pick up the linebacker.  He couldn’t, and Quandre Diggs zipped through the middle to stop the play for no gain.

Leno wasn’t alone.  Even though the Bears ran only 13 times, it provided ample opportunity for all of the offensive linemen to come up short.  Left guard Daniels – who was holding onto Cohen at the end of the game – was beaten back by Ezekiel Ansah during one failed second-quarter run.  Two plays later, he was supposed to lead Cohen on a sweep around right end.  Linebacker Devon Kennard met him at the edge and stopped him dead, stripping the sweep of all of the blocking and resulting in a 3-yard loss.

On one late second quarter run, right guard Bryan Witzmann was supposed to trap Robinson and right tackle Bobby Massie was supposed to pop off his double-team to get the linebacker.  Neither block happened as another running play was muffled for just a yard.

The evening’s futility extended especially to tight end Trey Burton.  With 9:03 left in the second quarter, Burton came peeling back toward the left of the formation to kick out Ansah and give Howard the corner.  He missed completely.  Less than three minutes later, Burton was unable to put any kind of block on cornerback DeShawn Shead.  That contributed materially to the 3-yard loss by Cohen spoken of earlier.  With 5:17 left in the third, Chase Daniel ran a well-executed read-option run toward the left end.  Burton just needed to get a block on Diggs.  Not only did he miss the block, Trey even was flagged for holding.

It was that kind of day all around.

This is now three times in the last four games that Chicago has been held under 70 rushing yards.  When you remember that a large portion of their success running the football was the direct result of the improvised scrambles of Trubisky, you start to wonder if this offensive line is truly good enough to measure up to the defensive lines they will see once the playoffs start.

Most of the concern in Chicago these days is over the health of their quarterback – who is listed as doubtful for today’s game.  Perhaps there should be some concern over the state of the running game.

On the other side of the coin is Detroit.  While their opponents in Chicago are looking forward to the playoffs, the Lions, with the loss, fall to 4-7.  Detroit limps into December with little to play for in what has been a disappointing first season under Matt Patricia.  The former defensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, Patricia has been unable to establish much defensive traction with the Lions so far.  Thanksgiving was the ninth time in eleven games that a Lions opponent has scored at least 21 points, and they currently rank twenty-fourth in points allowed with 286.  Their struggles begin with stopping the run.

They allowed at least 169 rushing yards in three of their first four games, and allowed 107 or more six times in their first eight games.  At that point, Detroit ranked thirtieth among thirty-two teams in stopping the run.  They were allowing 142.5 rushing yards per game, and 5.14 per rushing attempt – the second highest total in the league.

In what may be one of the first encouraging signs of the Matt Patricia era, the Lions might be starting to turn things around – at least in regards to stopping the run.  Last Thursday was the third straight game that Detroit has allowed less than 60 yards on the ground.  In fact, their total for the last three games (148) is only slightly higher than their average for the first 8.

Granted, two of those games were against a Chicago team that has been searching for its running game lately.  But in between those two efforts was a 20-19 conquest of the Carolina Panthers – currently the third most prolific running attack in football.  In that game, the Panthers staggered to just 56 rushing yards – again with no carry greater than 10 yards.  It has, in fact, been since Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook popped a 70-yard run against them with 4:45 left in the second quarter of their Week Nine game that anyone has broken off a run of more than ten yards against the Detroit run defense – 67 rushing attempts ago.

Standing out as much as anyone can when the opposition only runs the ball 13 times was linebacker Christian Jones, who made the primary tackle on 4 of those 13 plays.  Cut by the team in early September, Jones has been playing with increasing confidence and better anticipation.  Playing more on the inside than earlier this year, Jones was too quick for the linemen trying to pick him up off their double-teams, and largely un-blockable – especially by Cody Whitehair, the Bears’ center.

On a couple of Chicago’s unsuccessful runs, their blocking scheme didn’t even seem to include Jones.  Making the play is much easier when you are unblocked.

It is only three games, and the Lions do have other things to fix.  The pass defense – for example – rarely pressured Daniel, who, in just his third career start, racked up a very efficient 106.8 passer rating against Patricia’s pass defense.  There is still work to do in Detroit.

But if the Lions have found a way to stop – or at least slow – the bleeding against opposing running games, that will be a significant first step.