1.Finally, some clarity…
Now that week eleven is in the books and every team has ten games under their belts, the playoff picture starts to get a bit clearer. Sure, there’s still some murky waters in a few divisions, but in the AFC at this point, the Steelers, Patriots and Jaguars look to be ramping up for the postseason, with winning streaks of five, six and four games respectively. The Chiefs have the edge out west, but boy, are they a mess. More on that in a minute. The Titans and Ravens both look like solid wildcard contenders, and while they both have flaws, I don’t really see them slipping out of the bracket unless something strange happens. Over in the NFC, the Eagles, and Vikings are in good shape, while the Rams and Saints control their own destinies in tighter divisions. The NFC wildcard is shaping up to be a firefight with at least six teams vying for the two slots. I anticipate seeing more separation over the next few weeks, with the Panthers and Falcons staking their claims down the stretch, and at least one arcane tie-breaker to come into effect when the final seeds are determined.
2.The Rams are still good
Yes, the Rams got handled 24-7 by the Vikings on Sunday. No, it doesn’t mean that the Rams are an illusion atop the NFC West. This was a matchup between two solid divisional leaders, and I’d argue that such games don’t necessarily mean much in the scheme of things. Sure, both teams are trying to assert some dominance, but coaches tend to shorten the playbook against potential playoff opponents, and that scenario is absolutely possible from where we’re sitting. The Rams are still a good young team with playmakers on both sides of the ball and a coach who knows how to maximize their skill sets. I think what’s crucial for the Rams is that Seattle is just too dinged up to make a run at them. With a few less injuries, I could see Seattle’s experience giving them the edge, but right now, I can’t see the Rams losing their lead.
3.But the Vikings are better
The Vikings are a really, really good team that ranks fourth in points allowed, and second in rushing yards allowed. In fact, the Vikings only allow seventy-seven yards per game on the ground, and they did better than their average against one of the league’s top five rushers in Todd Gurley. The Vikings held Gurley to 37 yards on 15 carries, that’s less than half of his average output thus far this season. On offense, the emergence of Adam Thielen as a primary target has invigorated the Vikings and will certainly create more opportunities for Stefon Diggs. When Diggs capitalizes on a few of those chances, the Vikings become an even more dangerous team on offense. The Vikings showed a balanced attack this week, with Case Keenum throwing for almost three hundred yards, and the ground game going for almost two hundred. Not many teams with a top five defense are going to lose when they can do that on offense. No other team playing a third string QB can do that at all…make no mistake, the Vikings are flat-out dangerous.
4.The Chiefs are in a tailspin
Without a doubt, the Chiefs are the least scary division leader in the whole NFL. After week two, the Chiefs had beaten the Patriots and handed the Eagles their lone loss this season. But since week five, the Chiefs are 1-4 and their losses during this stretch aren’t what you’d call “good losses” (like the Rams losing to the Vikings). During that time, they lost to the Steelers, sure, but they also lost to the Raiders, Dallas and most recently, the New York Giants. Those are all what you call baaaaad losses. How a team can beat the Eagles and then lose to the Giants in the same season, without an injury to their QB is simply beyond me. No one seems to want to win the AFC West, so unless someone steps up and wins a few in a row, the Chiefs are bound for the playoffs. If that happens, look for them to get destroyed by a wildcard team that will smell blood in the water.
5.Dallas is, too
The Cowboys were a hot pick to go to the Super Bowl this year before the season started. Lots of people saw a team with a range of offensive weapons that was destined for improvement. Want to know what I saw? I saw a rookie QB and a rookie running back who played above their level because of an unbelievably good offensive line. Elite rookie QB’s almost always come back to earth in their second year, and last year’s lightning simply wasn’t going to strike twice. With Ezekiel Elliot lost to suspension, and injuries on the O-line, Dak Prescott suffered his worst career performance this Sunday in a 37-9 shellacking by the Eagles at Jerry-world. Prescott’s 145 yards and no touchdowns were punctuated by three interceptions that simply made an easy day for the Eagles into a laugher. As for the running back position? The Cowboys did just fine without their suspended star runner, rushing for over one hundred yards against the Eagles’ stingy defense. Translation? It’s not Elliot’s suspension that’s the problem, so his return will help only marginally. Sure, they’re still in the mix for a wildcard slot, but I anticipate his return will be too little, too late, to squeeze them into the playoffs.
6.Yeah, Green Bay, as well
I’m not sure if it’s just stubbornness, but the Packers really must see something in Brett Hundley that the rest of us are missing. This was a winnable game, all things considered. The Packers didn’t even put up a fight. The Ravens have been good on defense, but they entered the matchup under .500. If you told me that the Packers would get shut out, at Lambeau, against a team with a losing record, I would have laughed my ass off. Hundley simply isn’t ready. They need to move on. ASAP.
7.Buffalo has hit rock bottom
Speaking of not ready for primetime…Nathan Peterman, meet everyone. Everyone meet Nathan. Now; everyone, intercept his passes. Wow, that was ugly. While Peterman didn’t set the record for most INT in a game (8), we can only assume he would have if he wasn’t lifted at halftime, having thrown five interceptions already. I’m not sure if this was a case of Buffalo’s coaches trying to motivate Tyrod Taylor, but whatever it was, it didn’t work. Taylor has kept Buffalo in a lot of games this year and they were pushing the Patriots in the division and a virtual lock for a wildcard before the loss to the Jets shook up their collective psyche. The Chargers are better than their record, but honestly, I didn’t think they were better than Buffalo. This week’s blowout loss to a sub .500 team isn’t going to help the Bills come together. That being said, I think they’re still in the mix for the six-seed if they can right the ship against a floundering Chiefs team that’s come apart just as badly as they have.
8.Josh Gordon is back in Cleveland
While his return to the field is still contingent on the team pulling the trigger, they really don’t have much to lose, and the Browns stand to gain by showing the rest of the league what Gordon has left in the tank. The troubled receiver has missed the last two-years-worth of NFL contests after his suspension for substance abuse and ensuing failed drug and alcohol tests. Gordon was scheduled for reinstatement last season, but instead opted for in-patient treatment for his drug and alcohol issues. Gordon, despite his many off the field issues, is an explosive talent who has led the NFL in receiving yards prior to his suspensions, and holds several league receiving records. I’m not sure if Gordon is going to stay in Cleveland long-term, but he could certainly help them put up at least a single win this season. I’m interested to see if he’s still the same electric talent. I’m hoping so. Gordon is certainly fun to watch and would be a bright spot for Browns fans.
9.The Ravens are dangerous
I’ve mentioned before that when the Ravens contend, they do so with defense. This year, as they go into the back half of the season with a tenuous hold on the sixth seed in the AFC, the Ravens certainly have the look of a sneaky-good defensive spoiler. This week’s shutout of the Packers was the third such win by Baltimore this season, with the other two shutouts coming against the Dolphins and division rival Cincinnati. The Ravens might seem mediocre, having lost five games thus far: Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Minnesota and Tennessee. One of these kids is not like the others. One of these kids just isn’t the same. Can you pick which one? Chicago. That’s the only loss by the Ravens this year to a non-contending team. The rest can easily be classified as “good” losses. A pretty soft schedule over the last six weeks should help Baltimore secure their wildcard spot. God help the poor team who draws them in the wildcard round if their offense can get a little more consistent. Wondering what the record for shutouts in a season is? It’s five. The ‘76 Steelers. Can the Ravens tie, or break that record? Yeah. Seems crazy, but it’s definitely possible. They have the Colts, Browns, Texans and Bengals left. That’s three teams in bottom eight in points scored, plus the Texans who don’t have a quarterback.
10.Pete Carroll makes some questionable calls
No, I’m not about to launch into a tirade about the Seahawks losing the Super Bowl by not running the ball against the Patriots. That’s ancient history, and anyone who knows football will tell you that doing the expected thing against Bill Belichick with the game on the line is a recipe for disaster. No. This is about the inexplicable fake field goal that snuffed the Seahawks’ final drive of the first half on Monday night. Trailing by seven, the undermanned but still contending Seahawks tried a desperation pitch to the tight end. Where they thought he was heading with seven seconds left in the half was anybody’s guess. Not to the end zone, clearly, as he got pretty much destroyed as soon as he touched the ball behind the line of scrimmage. It wouldn’t have hurt so much, except that the Seahawks ended up losing by three, and points weren’t exactly at a premium in a high-scoring game with little in the way of defense. Perhaps Carroll sensed that his defense unit wasn’t going to make enough stops and felt the need to try a little trickery. The failed attempt reeked of desperation and had almost no chance of success. In any event, the only saving grace for Seattle is that the Rams lost as well, so their positions in the NFC West remained the same.
Question of the Week:
“Is Carson Wentz as good as he looks?” Eli T.
It’s an interesting question. He’s much, much better than he was last year, as his 25 TD-5 INT ratio shows. Last year he finished with 16TD and 14 INT respectively, so he’s getting the INT’s under control. But here’s the thing. While he’s much improved this year, and he’s the leader of the NFC’s best team thus far, he’s still just not that accurate throwing the football. His completion rate of 59.7% is the worst of any QB on a division-leading team. That’s a little suspicious, even for a run-first team. His completion rate was actually several points higher last year. In fact, he ranks forty-fourth in the league by that stat. Unless his luck stays crazy good, he’s going to start throwing more picks. By completion percentage, he’s much closer to C.J Beathard and Nathan Peterman than he is to Tom Brady and Drew Brees, so let’s cool it with the MVP talk, people. On the plus side, Wentz and the Eagles have been really, really good in the red zone, with seventeen touchdowns and zero interceptions, with a completion rate almost five whole points higher. It’s a formula that’s been working for them thus far. Pound the ball in the middle of the field, then punch it in on a play action pass, or a slant. Can they keep it up? Probably. They have the Rams in week fourteen, but aside from that, the broken down Seahawks represent the toughest test left until the playoffs. There’s a strong chance that the Eagles end up as the one seed in the NFC. Whether Wentz can then win a playoff game when their run game gets stifled is another question entirely.
Got a burning question? Disagree with me? Want more proof? Want to know my thoughts on your rookie that I didn’t mention? Hit me in the comments and I’ll answer the week’s best question (or questions) in next week’s edition.
Tom Capo writes about sports, parenting, food, wine and travel; but seldom all at once. He’s currently working on his first novel and collection of shorter fiction. He lives in the Bay Area with all of his girls; wife Allison, daughter Liliana and dog Artemis.