If this season in the NFL taught us anything, it’s that it’s never over until it’s over (thanks, Yogi). This was the year of the comeback in the league, and I’m not talking about heroic returns like the one Chiefs safety Eric Berry made after his battle with lymphoma, or any particularly memorable rally in a game (see the Bengals beating the Seahawks in Week 5).
What I’ll recall about the 2015 season was how many different teams looked completely done but wound up scratching and clawing their way back to relevance. It happens every year to some extent, but I can’t remember a season where there were more examples of teams that survived a near-death experience. To wit:
• Washington starts 2–4 and trails Tampa Bay 24–0 at home in Week 7, but roars back to win that game and then goes on to claim the NFC East title at 8–7.
• Seattle looks lost at 2–4, but recovers its swagger and locks up an NFC wild-card berth at 9–6.
• Houston goes a dismal 2–5 and is a train wreck at quarterback, but hangs around long enough to figure a few things out, and is now 8–7 and about 99.4% certain to be the AFC South champion.
• And, of course, there’s Kansas City, which staggers to 1–5 and going nowhere status in late October, but has now won nine in a row, locked up at least a wild-card slot and could still win the AFC West.
That’s four of the 12 eventual playoff teams that were well under water during the first half of the season but will still be playing meaningful games next weekend. It’s proof that in the long grind that is the NFL regular season, resiliency is the most valuable trait a team can have.
Now on to this week’s picks...
• Last week: 8–8; Season: 152–88 (.633).
• Worst pick in Week 16: Seattle 33, St. Louis 17 (Actual score: Rams 23–17).
The Falcons managed to miss the playoffs despite that 5–0 start, but they at least avoided a losing season with last week’s inspired upset of the unbeaten Panthers, and another home division win will ensure a winning record in coach Dan Quinn’s first year on the job. That’s at least a positive to build on, matching a strong finish to Atlanta’s fast start. Now it’s those games in the middle the Falcons need to work on. Will this mark the final game of largely successful Sean Payton era in New Orleans? I’m not sure anyone really knows exactly how this story is going to play out, including Payton.
Bills owner Terry Pegula has been known for making some quick-hook leadership changes during his tenure as the owner of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, but he has decided to stay the course with general manager Doug Whaley and head coach Rex Ryan, issuing a statement of support for both men on Wednesday. But let’s see if Pegula’s hopeful mood changes at all once his Bills drop to 7–9, as they watch an AFC East foe celebrate clinching a playoff berth in Ralph Wilson Stadium. Wasn’t it supposed to be Buffalo that was going to have reason to celebrate a postseason berth this season? I thought so, but apparently I was misinformed.
Matthew Stafford and the other members of the Lions’ offense are making a pretty good case for keeping offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter around, and I’d have to think that bodes well for the continued employment of head coach Jim Caldwell, too. But who knows what a new Lions general manager will decide? In this battle for last place in the NFC North, I’m going to take the bold step of predicting the Bears will secure just their second home win of the season, posting a respectable 7–9 record in John Fox’s first year in Chicago.
I was pretty impressed with A.J. McCarron’s game in the cold at Denver on Monday night, at least until he let that shotgun snap sail past him in overtime. The kid’s got some presence to him, and some teams might view him as potential starting material after his showing in this late-season trial run in Cincinnati. Besides still having a slim shot at a first-round bye—if the Chargers can upset the Broncos on the road—the Bengals have every reason to go all out to beat the Ravens and finish 12–4. That would tie the franchise record for wins in a season and, most importantly, trigger some very good karma. The two other times Cincinnati has finished 12–4, it went to the Super Bowl, in 1981 and 1988, losing to San Francisco in both games. The 49ers won’t be making it back to the big game, but the Super Bowl is being played in their stadium, so there’s that for symmetry.
The Steelers have had a painful habit of losing to under-.500 teams in the Mike Tomlin era—13 times in the past four years, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review—but never has there been a more costly slip-up than last week’s defeat at the hands of an injury-depleted Ravens squad. Unless the Bills knock off the red-hot Jets, the Steelers are going to miss the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, and it bears noting that Pittsburgh hasn’t won a game in the postseason since the 2010 AFC title game. If the Steelers go a fifth consecutive year without a playoff win, that’ll mark the first such streak in franchise history since 1967-71, the five seasons that preceded the dawn of the team’s glory era, beginning with a playoff trip in 1972. That’s a stat Tomlin is probably going to hear about all off-season long, and it may result in him starting his 2016 work on a bit of a hot seat.
It’s a meaningless game for both teams, but Washington’s current mojo is impressive, and Dallas is a simply dreadful 1–6 at home this season. And wrap your head around this: It’s the first time since 1999 that Washington has had a playoff spot locked up with nothing to play for in Week 17. An overly giddy Daniel Snyder isn’t even going to know what to do with himself in that luxury suite on Sunday. He’ll probably just sit and spin around in his chair. After all the fun we’ve had at the NFC East’s expense this year, its champion could finish 9–7, the same record the Giants had when they won the division and then the Super Bowl in 2011. Not that I’m saying Washington is Santa Clara-bound.
With super-sub Brandon Weeden’s work done, starting quarterback Brian Hoyer returns just in time for the party, helping lead the Texans to the win that clinches the AFC South. The Texans’ defense will actually pull most of the weight against Blake Bortles and the Jaguars, but the end result will be a second consecutive 9–7 record for Houston coach Bill O’Brien. Only this time, thanks to the Colts’ demise, that mark will be good enough for a division title, rather than a second-place, non-playoff finish like in 2014. Can I see the No. 4-seeded Texans making some noise in the postseason? A little. Not a lot. Not enough offense.
The winless Zach Mettenberger will start again at quarterback for the Titans. Either Josh Freeman or Ryan Lindley will get the nod for the QB-depleted Colts, right after they learn the names of some of their new teammates. And we assume both Mike Mularkey and Chuck Pagano will be working their final games as head coaches with the Titans and Colts. Throw in that Tennessee with a loss would lock up the No. 1 pick in the draft, and there must be a reason to care about this game in there somewhere.
The Dolphins have beaten the Patriots in South Florida in each of the past two seasons, so it could happen again, given New England’s shaky health situation. But this Miami team couldn’t even handle the shorthanded Colts last week at home, so I don’t foresee enough of an effort to knock off the Patriots, who still covet the No. 1 seed in the AFC that will be theirs with a win.
Eagles owner Jeff Lurie needs to learn how to split the difference. He stuck with Andy Reid for probably a couple seasons too long, and now he has ended the Chip Kelly era after just 47 games, which is a bit prematurely in my estimation. As for embattled Giants coach Tom Coughlin’s situation, he’s a great coach who has done great things for the franchise. But I think his best work in New York has long since been done, and the Giants have given him every chance to get things turned around. When you miss the playoffs in six of the previous seven years, including four in a row, it’s time to try another direction. Here’s hoping that Coughlin and the club come to a mutual decision and he’s sent out in the style he deserves.
When the Bengals were leading at Denver 14–0 on Monday night, the Chiefs’ shot to win the AFC West seemed tantalizingly within reach. But then it all but evaporated into thin Rocky Mountain air. Finishing the regular season on a 10–0 run would be an impressive accomplishment, but this is no gimme game for Kansas City. The Raiders would love to get to 8–8 for the first time since 2011 and make Charles Woodson’s final game one last victory lap. The Chiefs’ offense better show up for all four quarters, because another effort like last week’s underwhelming showing against Cleveland won’t get it done against Oakland.
I see where Ron Rivera said he’s sleeping better now that his Panthers have lost a game and no longer have the pressure of chasing a perfect season to contend with. I thought that would be the case in Carolina, with the defeat serving to refocus the Panthers on the big-picture goal of chasing a Super Bowl ring. But now it’s up to Rivera’s team to put away the slumping Bucs, lock up the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and then make the best possible use of that home field advantage.
I don’t have to get on the Cardinals’ bandwagon because I’ve been there since midseason. If I had to put money on one team to both get to and win the Super Bowl at this moment, it would be Arizona. Bruce Arians’s club has already beaten the Seahawks in Seattle this season, and they’ll get the sweep to head into the playoffs on a resounding 10-game winning streak.
Nothing is going to come easily for Denver these days, but the Chargers are a defeated team that won’t have quite enough juice to pull the upset and deny the Broncos both the AFC West title and a first-round bye. And can someone explain to me why the Broncos should be getting Peyton Manning ready to take back the starting quarterback job in the playoffs when the postseason has always been his Achilles’ heel anyway? His record in cold weather and as the king of the one-and-done playoff trip would not prompt me to consider benching Brock Osweiler.
Remember when Cardinals coach Bruce Arians fired that zinger at the Rams and coach Jeff Fisher late last season, describing St. Louis as “always 8–8?” Well darned if Arians might not turn out to be right, because with a win against San Francisco the Rams can close with a four-game winning streak and climb to 8–8, their first non-losing season since 2006. Fisher once went 8–8 three consecutive seasons with the Houston/Tennessee Oilers, in 1996–98, and overall he posted five years at .500 in that job. So break-even is his default setting. But it does make you wonder how, given its 4–3 start and current 3–0 streak, St. Louis ever had that season-killing five-game losing streak to begin with? A win would give the Rams a 5–1 record in the tough NFC West.
The Packers are confounding, and there’s absolutely no reason to have confidence in my preseason NFC Super Bowl pick at this point in their mystifying season. But the Vikings do have Green Bay in their heads, and until they get over the hurdle of beating their arch rivals, it’s a very real part of the equation in this series. Both the Lions and Bears won at Lambeau this season, so logic says the Vikings should certainly have a great shot to follow suit. But I think the Aaron Rodgers and the Packers will somehow find a way to gut out a win, lock up their fifth consecutive division title and set up a delicious Seattle at Green Bay rematch in the first round of the playoffs.