Yes, actually, the NFL has always been a week-to-week league. Although I will have to say that the last two or three weeks have been a little unusual in that regard.
Over the last few weeks:
- The Buffalo Bills scored only 6 points in losing to Jacksonville.
- After a breakthrough 41-17 pounding of the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati has lost two straight – to the lowly Jets, and a 41-16 pounding by Cleveland.
- Baltimore fell to Miami.
- Cleveland’s last four games have been a win over a Denver, a loss to Pittsburgh, a blowout win over Cincinnati, a blowout loss to New England.
- Denver followed a dominating 30-16 win over Dallas with a humbling 30-13 loss to Philadelphia.
- After winning a 47-42 shootout against Cleveland to start their season 4-1, the LA Chargers have lost 3 of their last 4.
- After beating Tampa Bay (again), New Orleans followed with consecutive losses – the first to the Atlanta Falcons, who have then lost their next two games by a combined 68-3.
- After a 7-1 start (that included a win over Tampa Bay), the Rams have lost two straight – the last one a 31-10 blowout on Monday Night Football to the lowly 49ers.
- The defending world champs are coming off a 29-19 beat down at the hands of the lowly Washington team.
What is going on here? It’s almost as though some gravitational force is seeking out teams that are trying to separate themselves from the pack and indiscriminately pulling them back toward .500.
This can be an uncomfortable situation. Most years the NFL presents several “known” contenders – teams that you can pretty much count on to win almost all of their games – and then fills around them any number of flawed challengers who are in the playoff hunt and might do damage if they get hot at the right time. These are not always the same “known” teams every year. From year-to-year some will rise and some will recede. But by this point of the season, you can almost always tell who will be the teams to beat.
In general, I feel that this is a positive. It gives the follower a sense of stability.
In the broader sense, I think the same holds true this year. I think we know who the better teams are. Unusual this year is that we have lost that sense of trust. We may believe in, say, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – but we can’t quite trust them, yet.
This could be an especially anxious time for fellows (and I am one of them) who like to pretend that they understand the NFL. The onslaught of upsets introduces an undercurrent of chaos into the well-ordered NFL universe as it sets up in our minds.
In my particular case, I have decided to enjoy the chaos. Ultimately, of course, I would like to see everything finally align itself to a series of logical outcomes. But if the journey toward that set of logical outcomes is more roller-coaster-esque than usual, then my counsel to all is to enjoy the ride. It is uncertain how long it may last.
Predicting the Playoffs
This is the point of the year where I annually predict who will go into the playoffs and in what order. I will do so again this year, but will have to approach things differently. Usually the predictions are based on my level of trust in the various teams. This year there is almost no one that I trust. There are, however, a few teams that I believe in – even though all of them have given me some reason not to trust them. For each conference, I will lay out the current order of the standings and contrast that to the changes I expect to see over the last 8 weeks of the season. Because my mind can’t work any other way, I am going to assume going forward that most teams are going to win the games they should win – even though the last few weeks have given us little reason to make that assumption.
We’ll start with the NFC
If the Playoffs Started Today – NFC
- 1 – Green Bay (8-2)
- 2 – Arizona (8-2) lost an earlier game to Green Bay.
- 3 – Dallas (7-2)
- 4 – Tampa Bay (6-3)
- 5 – LA Rams (7-3)
- 6 – New Orleans (5-4)
- 7 – Carolina (5-5)
And this is how I think it will look in a couple of months.
#1) Dallas Cowboys
The case for the Cowboys hinges on two games. The first of those will happen this Sunday as they play at the Chiefs. While they have been up-and-down lately, I believe in the Cowboys. At this point, I don’t believe in the Kansas City defense. They’ve had three good games in a row – which is encouraging – but against some questionable offenses. This includes holding the Packers to 7 points, but, of course, that was the game that Aaron Rodgers was forced to miss.
In short, my expectation is that the very multiple Dallas offense will have its way in KC.
The second decisive game will be their Week 17 Matchup with the Arizona Cardinals. Arizona is another team I believe in. When healthy, they have a potent offense and a much under-appreciated defense. This game could go either way. Here the nod goes to the Cowboys only because they will be playing at home.
#2) Arizona Cardinals
Could be the top seed if they can win in Dallas.
#3) Green Bay Packers
Green Bay is another team that has all of the pieces. But the margin for error between #1 and #3 is very small, and Green Bay has a couple of very challenging road games left on its schedule. The first will be this week in Minnesota (I’ll talk more about the Vikings in a bit). The other is their Week 15 game in Baltimore. The Pack plays Minnesota twice in the season’s last 8 weeks, and I don’t believe they are enough better than the Vikings to win both games. I also don’t see them winning in Baltimore – two critical losses that will probably cost them the top seed.
#4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Don’t really see them moving up any higher, but I also don’t see them being caught from behind.
#5) Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings were easy to give up on after they lost their first two games and three of their first four. Instead of flushing the rest of the season, though, the Vikings have battled back – they are currently 4-5. Their last two losses have been narrow defeats against Dallas and in Baltimore. They are coming off a huge come-back win in LA against the Chargers.
The Vikings now have a great number of winnable games in the rest of their schedule. Two of them will determine if they can make it all the way back to earn this playoff berth. First, they have to win one of the two against the Pack. The best opportunity for that will be this week when they have them at home.
The other will be their Week 16 game against the Rams. LA currently holds this fifth spot – and if they win this game they will probably go into the tournament as the fifth seed. But the game will be in Minnesota, where quarterback Matthew Stafford has plenty of bad memories. The Rams – for reasons I’ll try to explain in a bit – are not a team that I really believe in. As I sit here in mid-November, I don’t see LA winning this game on the road. The path to the fifth seed is there for the Vikings. It will be interesting to see if they take it.
#6) Philadelphia Eagles
We’ll talk a bit more about the Eagles in a bit as well, but here let me simply say that I’m starting to be a believer. The best news for the Eagles, though, is their remaining schedule. They have the struggling Saints (at home) this week, they have the Jets, the Giants (twice) and Washington (twice). They end the season in Dallas, and even if they lose that game, they have every opportunity to pile up enough victories before then to sneak into this playoff spot.
#7) Los Angeles Rams
Ah, yes. The Rams. Three weeks into the season, I was very high on them. They were 3-0 with a win over the Bucs as a highlight. Since then, I have been increasingly less impressed with the Rams. In Week Four they were pushed off the field by the Cardinals, and were then mostly unimpressive in rolling through four lesser opponents. In the last two weeks, they have been handily beaten by the Derrick Henry-less Titans and the (now) 4-5 49ers. Even with the buzz surrounding their recent roster additions, something whispers to me that this team is bound to disappoint.
Clouding the issue further is that all of their remaining difficult games are on the road (at Green Bay, Arizona, Minnesota and Baltimore). Even at that, this team is talented enough to win enough of these games to hang in the playoff picture – and even claim that fifth seed, if they can win in Minnesota.
If all of this pans out, a very interesting wildcard round will have the Rams in Arizona for round three of that rivalry, with Philadelphia heading to Green Bay, and Tampa Bay hosting Minnesota. Dallas, of course, would get the conference’s only bye.
What of the Displaced?
If Minnesota and Philadelphia elbow their way into the dance, they will – in this scenario – do so at the expense of New Orleans and Carolina.
The Saints are kind of easy to not believe in. Even before Jameis Winston and Alvin Kamara went down with injuries, this was an offense that was just trying not to lose games. That probably won’t change with Trevor Siemian under center. They are trying to ride their defense to victory – and much of the time that will be enough. It was against Tampa Bay. But it’s not a sustainable plan. The defense wasn’t enough to secure wins against Atlanta or Tennessee. Half-teams don’t usually sneak into the playoffs –and right now the Saints are a half team.
As to the Panthers, their season just got a lot more interesting with the addition of their former quarterback Cam Newton. Depending on how quickly he can fully get back in the saddle, Newton has the chance to re-write the Panther narrative.
The problem, though, is that Carolina faces a brutal final month. Their last 4 games are at Buffalo, home against Tampa Bay, at New Orleans and at Tampa Bay. As of this writing – even with Cam back – I don’t believe the Panthers are good enough to run that gauntlet.
If the Playoffs Started Today – AFC
- 1 – Tennessee (8-2)
- 2 – Buffalo (6-3)
- 3 – Baltimore (6-3) – conference record not as good as Buffalo’s
- 4 – Kansas City (6-4)
- 5 – New England (7-4)
- 6 – Pittsburgh (5-3-1)
- 7 – LA Chargers (5-4) – there are 3 AFC teams that are 5-4 right now. The tie-breakers give the spot to the Chargers.
And this is how I think it will play out over the rest of the season:
#1) Tennessee Titans
The irony here is that I don’t truly believe in Tennessee minus Henry. But, there they are, currently sitting in the top spot, with a 1.5 game lead over second-place Buffalo (whom they’ve beaten this year), and a relatively soft schedule before them. While I expect them to get knocked off in the playoffs, it’s hard to give credence to any scenario that has them yielding this top spot.
#2) Buffalo Bills
If the opportunity isn’t truly there to catch Tennessee, I also don’t see them being caught from behind.
#3) Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati has been as inconsistent as anyone, so there is considerable risk in this prediction. They are also a dangerously talented team, and they are home for five of their final seven games – and Cincinnati in winter can be a significant home-field advantage. Some of the teams that they will host are dangerous clubs (the Chargers, Baltimore and Kansas City). If they can win two of those – especially if one of those is the Baltimore game – and win two of their final three road games (Las Vegas, Denver or Cleveland) they will have a chance to make this happen. If they don’t finds some consistency fairly quickly, though . . .
#4) Los Angeles Chargers
This pick is more a referendum on the AFC West, which houses all dangerous teams, but none – I don’t think – that are capable of much sustained winning (and I include the Chiefs in that assessment). I actually expect to see more losing from the Chargers in the short term. They have the Steelers at home this week – which is kind of a must-win for them. But then they have tough road matchups in Denver and Cincinnati (cold weather sites are a particular hazard for warm-weather teams late in the season). The Chargers could hit the 12-game mark with a 6-6 record.
Their opportunity to win the division will rest squarely on the next four games (Weeks 14-17). They host the Giants and Chiefs, play in Houston, and then host the Broncos. If they win them all, they will almost certainly take the division. If they lose one, they will have to go into Las Vegas to win in Week 18 – a tougher option.
#5) New England Patriots
Don’t quite see them catching the Bills from behind, but if Buffalo slips New England could regain this division. They will play Buffalo twice in the last half of the season, but unless they are good enough to win both games, they won’t gain any ground on them.
#6) Baltimore Ravens
Picking Cincinnati to win this division had as much to do with my concerns about Baltimore as it did with the Bengals’ potential. At 6-3 so far this season, the Ravens could very easily be 2-7. They barely beat a mediocre Kansas City team at home (36-35), squeaked past a still winless Detroit team on a last-second 66-yard field goal, and won an overtime game at home only because the Colts couldn’t kick and extra-point or a field goal. The Baltimore defense is hovering around the bottom of the league.
Moreover, nine games into the season, Baltimore has only played one division game – their home loss to Cincinnati. So their final 8 games will include 5 games in a very tough, competitive division – three of them on the road. All of these division road games (in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh), played now late in the season, become all the more difficult due to weather concerns.
All this should cause enough slippage to give Cincy a real opportunity to steal this division.
#7) Indianapolis Colts
Truthfully, this final spot will be a wide-open battle all year, with any of five teams probably close enough to claim it. The Colts have the advantage of playing in the AFC South. This gives them four games this year (two each) against two of football’s worst teams – Houston and Jacksonville. Indy has already beaten those teams once each, and have one more game with both yet to be played.
This has the advantage of not only padding their over-all win total, but it also pads their conference record – which is the highest likely tie-breaker to come into play. It’s enough of an edge for me to give the Colts the final spot – for now.
Under this scenario, the wildcard round would have Indianapolis in Buffalo, Baltimore in Cincinnati, and New England visiting the Chargers. Again, Tennessee sits out this round with their bye.
And the Displaced in the AFC?
Playoff invitations to Cincy and Indy will come at the expense of Pittsburgh and Kansas City. I find it relatively easy not to believe much in either team.
The Steelers, in particular, seem to be just hanging on. Offensively, they have scored 20 or more points just 4 times in 9 games. They have surrendered 20 or more points 5 times. Their closing schedule is pretty tough as well. They have both of their games with Baltimore left to play, as well as road games in LA to play the Chargers, Cincinnati, Minnesota and Kansas City. They also have Tennessee on their schedule – although that game will be a home game. I think it will be all that Mike Tomlin will be able to do to keep his streak of non-losing seasons intact. This Steeler team doesn’t look like a playoff team to me.
The Chiefs, of course, are still the Chiefs – in there somewhere. At any point, they could – theoretically – flip the switch and become that team again. That may, in fact, have already happened with last week’s big win against the Raiders.
Offensively, I still believe in this team. It’s the defense. There really isn’t any aspect of defensive play that they do well – at least not until last week. And in this year’s week-to-week NFL, I really need to see them play that well more than once. This week’s game against the Cowboys will tell us an awful lot about both teams.
My expectation is that none of this will hold. The NFL today is sprinkled with teams that have been very good over the last several seasons that are currently struggling to regain that magic, several others that are very talented but very young and inconsistent, and several others that are just mysteries. I kind of hope that the rest of the season will be as wild and wooly as the last few weeks have been. I expect to be revising this pecking order every week as the season winds down – and I’m OK with that.
A little chaos can be good for the soul.
Do I Believe in Philadelphia?
About 50%. This is not a team that I think is ready to do any big things in the playoffs, but I have to say I like the direction they are headed – especially offensively.
I am not quite ready yet to designate quarterback Jalen Hurts as a Mount Rushmore quarterback, but I have to say that I like everything I’ve seen from him so far. His athleticism speaks for itself, but I’ve found myself equally impressed with many of the other aspects of his quarterback play.
Last Sunday he was blitzed relentlessly by the Broncos (Denver sent an extra rusher on 40% of Jalen’s drop-backs). Far from being flustered, Jalen responded by going downfield on the defense. While completing 16 of 23 against one of football’s toughest pass defenses, Jalen threw 11 of those passes at targets more than 10 yards from scrimmage – including six at depths of more than 20 yards. He completed 5 of those for 95 yards and 2 touchdowns. Jalen has a bit of moxy, seems to have a solid understanding of how the passing game works, and has a legitimate arm. He also brings a confidence to the huddle that I think the team responds to.
During most of his early games, Jalen’s accuracy has been a bit suspect. But not against Denver. According to Sportradar (which supplies the advanced stats to the pro-football reference site) Jalen was on-target with 18 of the 22 passes he actually threw to a target (81.8%). In DeVonta Smith and Quez Watkins, he has two impact receivers who can make plays all over the field.
As interesting as the Eagle passing game is, it’s Philly’s re-commitment to the run that will make this one of football’s most dangerous offenses going forward.
The Eagles actually began the season with a run-first mindset. They piled up 173 ground-yards in an opening day win over Atlanta, and then ran for 151 more in a Week Two loss to San Francisco. But then they got away from it. In losing three of their next four games, Philadelphia averaged just 18 rushing attempts per game and just 89.5 yards per contest. Note that they were still gaining 5.0 yards per attempt, but they found themselves in a couple of shootouts and decided to try to keep pace with the passing game.
Beginning with their Week Seven match against the Raiders, Philadelphia returned to its ground game. Beginning with 135 yards in that game in Vegas, the Eagles have averaged 190.75 yards per game on 39 rushing attempts per game. They steam-rolled the Broncos on Sunday to the tune of 216 rushing yards on 39 carries – the second time in the last four games that they have crossed over the 200 mark in rush yards.
Jalen has been a part of this. He has 249 rush yards over the last four weeks – and still leads the team in rush yards for the season with 547 – although his contribution of 62.25 yards per game (over the last four weeks) represents the lesser part of the Eagle running output.
In their 30-13 win over the Broncos (gamebook) (summary), Jordan Howard ran for 83 yards on 12 carries, and Boston Scott added 81 more on 11 carries. It was a perfect blend of great offensive line play and attitude running. Howard averaged 3.4 yards per carry before a defender contacted him (the NFL average is 2.48), and then he gained 3.5 yards after contact (the NFL average is 1.80). Likewise, Scott was 4.3 yards up-field before contact. He then – on average – added another 3.1 yards. All Eagle runners combined to break 6 tackles – including Hurts, who added a broken tackle of his own.
The Broncos’ defense came into the match ranked second in points allowed and sixth in yardage surrendered. This performance from the Eagle offense was no mean feat.
Ah, But That Defense
If the Eagle offense is quickly rising, the team will ultimately be held back by its defense. At the start of the Denver game, the Eagle pass defense ranked last in the NFL in completion percentage allowed (75.5%) and twenty-eighth in opponent passer rating (104.8). They were also below average against the run, giving 119.7 ground yards a game.
Things went better for them against the Broncos, but Denver’s is an offense not really built for coming from behind. Denver still averaged 5.3 yards per running attempt against the Eagles, getting 70 of their 96 yards (72.9%) after contact. Javonte Williams picked up 41 of his 48 yards after contact (an astonishing 5.1 per carry).
There is work to do on the defensive side of the ball, but the Eagles are a team on the rise.
Titans Finding a Way
The Titans are 2-0 in the first two critical games of their post-Derrick Henry season, but their offense hasn’t looked healthy in either game.
Two huge interceptions from the Titan defense put two touchdowns on the board against the Rams – leading to that 28-16 win. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw for just 143 yards in that game, and the Henry-less running attack added just 69 yards.
Against New Orleans last Sunday Tennessee managed 76 total yards in the game’s second half – averaging just 2.7 per play – in a game in which they were outgained 373-264.
But if that weren’t enough, a two-minute sequence from the end of the first half to the opening kickoff of the second half was more than enough to seal the Saint’s fate.
Coming out of the two-minute warning – game tied at six – the Titans faced first-and-goal at the Saint 8-yard line. Tannehill’s floaty pass was intercepted by Marcus Williams in the back of the end zone, ending the Tennessee possession and giving the Saints a chance to take a lead into the half.
But they wouldn’t get the ball. A phantom roughing the passer call on Kaden Elliss (who didn’t commit the blow to the head he was accused of) gave the ball back to the Titans. They eventually scored with 1:38 left in the half.
New Orleans then moved quickly to the Titan 35 with still a minute to go. But Siemian – who was sacked 4 times in the first half – held on to the ball too long and was sacked on successive plays. Before the next play could be run, a false start penalty pushed them out of field goal range.
Deonte Harris then fumbled the opening kickoff of the third quarter, giving the Titans another short field touchdown, and suddenly the Saints trailed 20-6.
Even at that, it took one final mistake to put the nail in the Saints’ coffin. With 1:20 left in the contest, Siemian tossed a touchdown pass to Marquez Callaway that brought the Saints to within two points. But a final false start penalty – this one by Adam Trautman on the two-point attempt pushed the try back to the seven. The attempt failed from there, and the Titans had their eighth win.
The Saints no longer have an offense potent enough to overcome mistakes and bad luck – a prominent reason why I don’t expect to see them in the playoffs.
The thing is, I don’t think the Titans do either. Tennessee gets a lot of credit for finding a way to win. But this formula isn’t sustainable. What happens when the officials don’t blow a call and allow the Titans a second shot at first and goal? What happens when a call like that goes against them? What will they do when they fumble the opening kickoff? Will their offense be able to bring them back? Or will they struggle in those situations like the Saints did?
This Tennessee offense needs to do something to convince me that they are still a capable unit even without their centerpiece.
A Statistical Oddity
Through the end of Week Ten, NFL teams had tallied exactly 1000 offensive trips into the end zone, during which they had scored exactly 600 touchdowns.