1.The teams at the top are eerily similar
The top two teams in both conferences all sit at 13-3 to close the regular season, but it’s the similarities between the one seeds that are most interesting. New England and Philadelphia have identical conference, non-conference and divisional records, they’ve also both scored exactly 162 more points than their opponents, tied for the best in the league. They’ve both scored exactly 28.6 points per game and given up 18.5 and 18.4 points per game respectively. So not only is their point differential identical, but they got there with crazily similar tallies. Over the course of a sixteen game season, the Patriots scored one more point, and allowed one more point than the Eagles. In fact, they’re so close statistically, over the entire season, that they’ve run almost the same exact NUMBER of plays (Philly won that stat 1073-1070). That’s where the similarities end. The Eagles enter the playoffs on a loss and will be without their starting quarterback, the Patriots have a guy throwing footballs who seems disinclined to acquiesce to father time. The Eagles’ shutout loss to the Cowboys this weekend wasn’t exactly a confidence booster. The Patriots, on the other hand, manhandled the Jets 26-6 without throwing a single pass to their single biggest offensive threat. More on that in a minute.
2.The Ravens want one play back
It was all there for the taking. The Ravens had clawed their way back and had the lead for the first time all game, despite a brutal pick-six in the third quarter. They had a three-point lead with less than a minute on the clock. The Bengals were mired at midfield, it was fourth and twelve yards to go. The Ravens defense would, of course, stifle a desperation pass attempt, right? Wrong. So, so, so wrong. The ensuing touchdown was brutal to watch, as was the disappearance of a seemingly secure wildcard slot. Tennessee beat a Jaguars team that seems to have lost some steam and the Bills? Well, the Bills did something we haven’t seen in a while. The Ravens are on the outside looking in, again. While many of my dear friends down in Baltimore are screaming for the heads of Ozzie Newsome, or John Harbaugh, I can only hope that the team takes a more evolutionary approach. There are plenty of teams that need to burn it down and start over. Baltimore isn’t one of them.
3.James Harrison is right at home in New England
Well, that didn’t take long. James Harrison has officially accomplished more in one game with the Patriots than he had all year long with the Steelers. Playing in just under half of the Patriots defensive snaps on Sunday, Harrison recorded five tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. He’s a future hall of famer in good shape, plus he’s pissed off and fresh, since he wasn’t getting any snaps all season long. If you were among those who thought that he was playing on an empty tank and couldn’t contribute, Mr. Harrison would like to see you outside.
4.The Chargers left too much up to chance
Apologies to the Ravens, but the Chargers are the best team in either conference that DIDN’T make the playoffs. Despite a season-ending whipping of the divisional rival Raiders, the Chargers had too big a hill to climb in the final week. Their bad luck and bad kicking early in the season has cost them dearly. Not only have the Chargers coughed up a bunch of close games, they shouldn’t really have been in that many close games in the first place. Sound weird? Let me explain. The Chargers were the third best defense in the league by points allowed, behind only Jacksonville and Minnesota and just ahead of New England and Philly. The Chargers were also the league’s fourth best offense by yardage, and well into the top half by points scored. Their point differential is better than half of the AFC’s playoff teams. Do the math. Top level defense and above average offense. That’s a recipe for a tough-to-beat playoff team right there. Only the Chargers will be watching from home when wildcard weekend starts.
5.The NFC South makes up half of the NFC’s bracket
Yeah, we thought that this might happen. When the Saints emerged as a contender, this division took on the look of the NFC’s best. The whole bottom of the bracket is from the South, with the Saints owning the division title and the fourth seed. The Panthers and Falcons locked up both wild card slots, holding off a scrappy and experienced, but far too injured Seattle squad that was nipping at their heels. Can any of these three teams make a serious run? I’m not sure, but I think the Saints might. The balance on that offense is really tough for opposing defenses to cover effectively. The Rams have looked less than steady all of a sudden, while the Eagles just aren’t the same without Carson Wentz. The Panthers have already lost twice to the Saints this season, so expecting them to advance in a road playoff game is probably unrealistic. I have a hard time seeing the Falcons catching fire now. The Rams are essentially a younger, better version of them and are likely to win that matchup.
6.Gronk took the night off…sort of
Here’s an in-game oddity from the Patriots win over the Jets on Sunday. Tom Brady didn’t throw the ball to his future hall of fame tight end. He didn’t even try. Not a single target. The Jets were making life hard for Brady all night, but I suspect that’s not the reason. Gronk’s value, in part, is that he more or less requires double coverage to not destroy opposing defenses (ask the Steelers how man coverage on Gronk worked a few weeks back). The Patriots, for their part, were perfectly happy to have him run routes and drag two men along with him. They just never had any intention of throwing to him. At all. It was the game plan. Gronk knew it. When asked after the game, Gronkowski simply stated; “It was a coaching decision.” Why? Put simply, they didn’t need to. A healthy Gronk is a dangerous Gronk and that’s what the Patriots have. No figure this side of Tom Brady factors more heavily into the Patriots chances at a repeat. So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you…Diversion-Gronk. Defensive coordinators, your move. Good luck with that.
7.Gruden’s headed back to Oakland? Maybe?
Despite a strong 2016 season and the emergence of Derek Carr as an elite level quarterback, the Raiders are going back to the drawing board in advance of their relocation to Las Vegas. The team parted ways with head coach Jack Del Rio immediately following Sunday’s loss to the Chargers. It’s an odd move. While this year showed some expected regression following last year’s 12-4 campaign, this was an Oakland team that was in the mix for a division title as late as week fifteen. Rumors are swirling that former coach Jon Gruden is in the crosshairs for the gig. Could Gruden come back and catch lightning in a bottle again after a ten-year absence from the coaching ranks? I’m just not sure.
8.The Bills are back!!!!
In the playoffs anyway. With their convincing win over Miami and the heartbreak down in Baltimore, the Bills snatched the sixth seed in the AFC, their first appearance since last millennium. OK, it was just 1999, but that was the longest active postseason drought in the NFL. Wait? What about the Browns? Good question, but only fifteen years have elapsed since they snuck in. The Bills have a solid defense, a top flight rusher and an elusive quarterback. This is a Bills team that can make some noise if they play composed. Jacksonville has looked shaky down the stretch, dropping their last two games and being absolutely picked apart by the Niners. Plus, the Jags aren’t great against the run. If the Bills can stay close and use the ground game, they can win on wildcard weekend and all bets are off.
9.Heads have rolled
Aside from the probably-already-filled vacancy in Oakland I just mentioned, and the Giants who had black Monday a few weeks early, a number of teams have made coaching moves that should be fun to watch. The Packers have moved on from defensive coordinator Dom Capers. It was a few days late, but for many Packers fans, this was exactly what they wanted for Christmas. GM Ted Thompson is also moving, on, becoming a special advisor to the team. No word yet on the GM search. The Cardinals are looking for a new head coach, following the retirement of Bruce Arians. They’ll need a new QB too, as Carson Palmer is calling it a career, as well. The Lions, Bears and Colts are all looking for new leaders. An interesting note about the vacancies…most come with a decent QB. That’s odd. Usually head coaching vacancies come with QB question marks. Here’s the list: Oakland-Derek Carr. Giants-Eli Manning. Colts-Andrew Luck (assuming he comes back). Bears-Mitchell Trubisky. Lions-Matt Stafford. Arizona-??? With the exception of the last one, none of these gigs seems terrible, to be honest. All of these teams have something decent to build on. Head coaching gigs are usually a terrible uphill battle to start, but someone is definitely going to look just like Sean McVay next year.
10.And some have not…
Notably, there are two teams that aren’t looking for a new coach, but probably should. The Bengals have inexplicably given Marvin Lewis yet another extension. Maybe playing spoiler to the Ravens is the Super Bowl for these guys. The Bengals string of mediocrity and under-performance under Lewis is mind-boggling. Even more perplexing, however, is the vote of confidence given to Browns’ coach Hue Jackson. I’m not sure how a guy can record the second 0-16 season in NFL history, AFTER going 1-15 and then keep his job. Let me repeat that. The Browns won one game in 2016. Then, they somehow got WORSE, and decided that the coach in charge of all of that was definitely the man for the job. Cleveland is a weird, weird place.
Question of the Week:
“It seems like the cream of the crop is at the top in both conferences, so what Wildcard Weekend game are you most excited about this year?” Chris S.
It’s true, the best teams all seem to have the bye this week. But let’s be real, I’m watching everything. I’m pretty sure the Saints won’t fall off at home against the Panthers. I’m not super interested in the Chiefs-Titans, I’m just not sure either of those teams are better than Ravens or Chargers who will be playing golf next weekend. The Falcons-Rams game has some interest, but the Falcons strike me as a shadow of the team that came so close last year. That leaves the Bills-Jags game. I’m pretty interested. I noted earlier how the Jags are on a little skid coming in, and the Bills are coming in on a hot streak and the jet fuel of their first playoff appearance in nearly two decades. If the Jags get an early lead, this sucker is probably over, but if they trade shots and Buffalo can run the ball, this could very well be a last possession type of ball game.
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.