We’re back, people. Your weekly look-around the NFL for the best performances, worst chokes, and most questionable prognostications.
If I didn’t mention your team this week, no worries. Good, bad, or meh, I’ll be getting to everyone in due time.
1. The Ravens are alone at the top
We’ve known for some weeks now that the Ravens were headed for the number one seed in the AFC playoffs. What we didn’t see coming was them resting a large number of starters and still blowing out a wildcard-contending Steelers team that had everything to play for. The 28-10 rout over their divisional rivals with what can only be described as the B-team was something to behold. Now, I grant you that the Steelers were dealing with issues all over the roster, but with the extra rest and the extra week, these full-strength Ravens are going to be tough to beat.
2. Football is a game of inches
So close. With the game, division, and number one seed on the line, Seattle needed five yards to win the game. They got approximately 4.999999999999. The goal line stand by Niners linebacker Dre Greenlaw on TE Jacob Hollister will make him a 49ers legend, no matter where they go from here. But with the stand and the win, the Niners will have homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, and Seattle will hit the road to play the NFC East champion Eagles in Philly. But for one inch, their roles would have been completely reversed. Crazy.
3. The Jets are…improving?
Don’t look now, but the Jets finished strong. And not just with their week seventeen win over the wildcard bound Buffalo Bills. New York looked chaotic early, dropping seven of their first eight games, but came back strong, winning six games in the second half. And one those second half losses was at Baltimore. I’m not saying that New York is playoff contender for 2020, but maybe, just maybe they can ride this wave into next year.
4. New England is…sorry everyone…looking messy
From one week to the next, Belichick’s bunch just doesn’t look consistent. After their best win of the season in week sixteen over the tough defense of playoff-bound Buffalo, the Pats laid an egg at home, against one of the worst teams in the league, Miami. Now, Julian Edelman isn’t at 100%, and he played less than expected, but that’s no excuse for the league’s best defense to allow a thirteen play, 75-yard drive to lose the game against a team that will be drafting in the top five this year. The loss dropped New England to the third seed, lost them a bye-week, and set them up for a wildcard weekend clash with a tough Tennessee team that will give the champs all that they can handle at Foxboro. Any way you paint it, it’s a bad loss for a team that has looked more fragile than fearsome all season, despite finishing at 12-4.
5. The Browns have taken a step back
So, now what? This Browns team came into the season as a trendy Super Bowl pick. They’d won seven games in 2018 (7-9-1) and looked poised for their first winning season since (rechecks list in disbelief) 2007. In fact, the Browns have had only two winning seasons this millennium (2002, 2007). With their week seventeen loss to the Bengals, the Browns dropped to 6-10 and might need to reevaluate EVERYTHING that they thought would get them to the next level. That’s where Paul DePodesta comes in. If the name rings a bell, you might be a baseball fan, as the Browns chief strategy officer is best known for his role with the Oakland Athletics (watch Moneyball if you have any questions about that). So, yes, it’s time for a new head coach to replace Freddie Kitchens, but they’ll need to look at the way this roster is constructed top to bottom if they really want to move this team forward. Apparently, just stocking up on expensive talent doesn’t always work…
6. The Titans are dangerous
Do not sleep on Tennessee in these playoffs. Derrick Henry might very well be the baddest running back on the planet. All the buzz this season was for Ezekiel Elliot and Christian McCaffrey, who both had great seasons, but Henry outgained them both on the ground, and he’s headed to the playoffs while those guys hit the beach. Teams will have to sell out to stop him, as the Titans averaged almost 140 YPG on the ground, good enough for third in the league. The Titans might be 9-7 yet again, but with Ryan Tannehill under center and Henry running wild, Tennessee has been a different team. I can easily see them upsetting the apple cart twice on their way to an AFC Championship game.
7. The Broncos are ascendant
Just like the Jets, early season struggles left the Broncos on the outside looking in as the season came down the stretch, which is a shame, because they’ve played some good football since week twelve. Denver stifled Oakland’s playoff dreams in week seventeen, and their only loss over the final five games was against Kansas City. Again, I’m not sure what the offseason holds, but there are plenty of good pieces to build off of in Denver.
8. Individual stats are not a predictor of team success…except for one…maybe
Of the top ten passing yardage leaders, guess how many made the playoffs. If you answered zero, you win a fruitcake. Jameis Winston, Dak Prescott, Jared Goff, Philip Rivers and Matt Ryan all aired it out, and now all are headed to the golf course. Of the five, only Jared Goff even posted a winning record. What about the top five rushers? Only Derrick Henry and Chris Carson made the playoffs, and Carson is injured. As for receivers, Michael Thomas was the overwhelming receiving yardage leader, but only he and Chiefs TE Travis Kelce will be playing in the postseason. Defensively, again, among the top five performers in tackles and sacks, only two of each five will suit up this weekend. There is, however, one individual stat that seems to correlate with making the postseason. Interceptions. Ten players recorded at least five interceptions this year, and seven of those are on playoff teams. And two of the ten that missed the playoffs are from Pittsburgh, who were in the mix all the way until the end. Turnovers matter. A lot.
9. It’s going to be a chaotic offseason for coaches
With Washington snapping up two of the readily available head coaching candidates, it’s going to be a weird offseason for coaching candidates. Ron Rivera will head up the coast from Carolina to the nation’s capital, and he lured Jack Del Rio back to the sideline to run the defense. The usual names are floating around…Josh McDaniels, whoever happens to run the Patriots defense (in this case, Belichick the younger) and the coordinators who have met Sean McVay for a cup of coffee. One interesting name to me is Niners DC, Robert Saleh. His feverish sideline persona and intensity will make for some amazing soundbites once he’s doing regular pressers, I just hope he doesn’t wash up on the rocky shores of Cleveland. Still in the mix for a new coach are the Giants, Panthers, Browns and (presumably) the Cowboys, who have got to be viewed as the best of these gigs.
10. It’s been a heck of a season
No lesson to be learned here specifically. Just thinking about what we’ve witnessed in 2019. The glorious ascendance of Lamar Jackson. The rejuvenation of two of the NFC’s most storied franchises, with San Francisco and Green Bay earning the top two seeds in the conference. Drew Brees and Tom Brady somehow BOTH making forty look good, keeping their teams in the mix, even if they’re both hosting games in the wildcard round instead of enjoying a bye week. As the decade comes to a close, we might be seeing the last charge of these all-timers, so let’s enjoy it. Since Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe in 2001, the Patriots have never been at or below .500. They have missed the playoffs only twice (2002, 2008) and in 2008, they were 11-5 while missing a wildcard berth. Brees and his amazing stats have been occasionally overshadowed by Brady’s ring-hoarding tendencies, but there’s no question that he’ll also be a first-ballot hall of famer, maybe even in the same class. We’ve also seen the darker side of the league, from Myles Garrett’s violent assault of an opposing quarterback, to botched calls, badly written rules and unconscionable video replay results. The sad and inevitable end of Josh Gordon’s once-promising career, and the predictable meltdown of an expensive and talented roster in Cleveland. It’s been a wild one, and we’ll get back to some of these topics at the end of the season, but for now, we’re playoff bound. Get your popcorn ready!
For more thoughts and opinions from Tom, check out his author page.
Image Source: AP Images