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.