The Broncos’ victory over the Bengals on Monday night eased concerns about Denver’s quarterback situation with Brock Osweiler at the helm but left the Bengals unsettled. The rankings headed into the final week
The meaning of Denver 20, Cincinnati 17, in overtime, late Monday night:
• The winning quarterback assuaged fears in his locker room. Denver was rightfully getting worried that the games were too big for Brock Osweiler (scoreless in his previous three second halves coming into Monday night), but he was confident and mostly on target when he had to be against a physical Cincinnati secondary and oppressive pass-rush. Late in the game he started hitting his two security blankets, Demaryius Thomas and Owen Daniels; Thomas, in particular, bailed him out on the winning field-goal drive with an amazing one-handed third-down-conversion catch, made while fending off cornerback Adam Jones.
• Yet another Bengals quarterback with a hand problem. In the first 20 minutes, A.J. McCarron sliced through the best defense in football twice, for touchdown drives of 80 and 90 yards, and the Bengals, up 14-0 early in the second quarter, looked to be on their way to a rout. But McCarron could manage only a field-goal in his last nine drives, and he let a fine shotgun snap go right through his hands in overtime after the Broncos had kicked a field goal on the first possession; the Denver recovery ended the game. In the scramble for that loose ball, McCarron injured his left wrist and will have an MRI on it today. If he’s OK, Cincinnati will have a chance in the playoffs—he had deft touch against pressing cornerbacks; seven times he completed sideline toe-tap routes to his big receivers. If he’s not, the next man up is Keith Wenning, a 2014 sixth-rounder who has never taken an NFL snap. Which brings us to …
• The fate of Andy Dalton. The loss makes it likely Cincinnati will be the third seed in the playoffs, and that the Jets or Steelers will play at Cincinnati in a Wild-Card game either 11 or 12 days from now. Dalton is wearing a black cast to protect the thumb he fractured on his right hand 16 days ago, and that weekend would be the absolute earliest he might play. Imagine a Steelers-Bengals rematch for a Wild-Card game. It’s not likely, but the possibility is tantalizing. The Jets would be just as hard to beat, if not more so, because of a surprisingly hot quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick and a stifling defensive front of their own.
• Does the Denver victory, and likely first-round bye, make it any more possible that Peyton Manning could work his way into the playoff plans for the Broncos? I don’t know, though there’s a chance he’ll practice fully this week. It would be a good idea for Osweiler’s job security that Osweiler plays a good game in the regular-season finale against San Diego at home on Sunday. Manning’s not even in the equation unless and until he proves he can plant and throw with more authority than he did six weeks ago against Kansas City.
• Kansas City at Houston is pretty solid for Wild-Card weekend. And if you’d bet on the early Saturday slot for it, you’d probably make some money. That looks like the AFC’s 5-at-4 matchup. I’d guess the likely Bengals’ hosting job could be Sunday early, with the NFC games late Saturday and late Sunday. But who knows. I still think the most attractive game that weekend could well be Seattle at Green Bay if it happens.
Now for the Fine Fifteen...
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The Fine Fifteen
1. Arizona (13-2). Last week: 3. There’s a change at the top, as you can see. It’s based totally on facts. No emotion. Arizona has won nine straight, by an average of 13.1 points. Four of those nine wins came over teams assured of playoff spots. Arizona has won the last two by 23 (over a playoff contender, Philadelphia) and by 30 (over a playoff team, Green Bay). Meanwhile …
2. Carolina (14-1). LW: 1. … Panthers lost their first game of the season Sunday, to 8-7 Atlanta. No real worries about Carolina, but in the last four weeks, they’ve lost to Atlanta, and given up 38 to New Orleans and 35 to the Giants. Tough staying at the top. How great would a Carolina-Arizona NFC title game be, wherever it’s played?
3. New England (12-3). LW: 2. Shouldn’t be too concerned about the overtime loss to the Jets, unless the Patriots can’t get the offensive line healthy for the divisional playoff weekend. Has to be worrisome that not only have the Patriots played five left tackles this year, but two of them left Sunday’s loss with injuries. Sebastian Vollmer’s ankle will be one to watch in the next 19 days. That’s the time between now and the divisional playoff weekend.
4. Denver (11-4). LW: 8. Don’t quite know what lessons to take from Monday night for Denver, other than when the defense absolutely had to play big—like, the last five drives of the game—it played like the best defense in football. With Brock Osweiler still a work very much in progress, that’s going to be vital in order to win in January.
5. Cincinnati (11-4). LW: 9. All of Cincy awaits the results of McCarron’s MRI.
6. Kansas City (10-5). LW: 7. Last time they lost, the first pitch of the World Series hadn’t been thrown. By beating Oakland, the Chiefs will enter the postseason on a 10-game winning streak.
7. Seattle (9-6). LW: 4. If you love the Seahawks, you say, St. Louis just has our number. If you want to draft a lesson from the Rams beating Seattle four times in the last four years, this is it: Seattle is too often going to struggle against teams that can get pressure without sending more than four.
8. New York Jets (10-5) LW: 10. Big defensive front showed up against New England. As long as that continues, and as long as the best Jets passing game in years keeps rolling, they’ll be a tough out in January.
9. Washington (8-7). LW: 12. It’s about how you’re playing at the end of the year, and Washington’s 3-0 by a total of 27 points, two of those games on the road, in the last three weeks. One other Washington note: In the last nine games, Kirk Cousins has thrown 20 touchdowns with three interceptions. He just might be The Man.
10. Minnesota (10-5). LW: 11. Teddy Bridgewater’s passer rating is north of 110 in the last three mistake-free weeks. That’s what I’d want entering a division championship game in a hostile and cold place, which is what the Vikings will be doing on Sunday.
11. Green Bay (10-5). LW: 6. I give up. Anyone got a solution for this team? If so, you’ve got five days to forward it to Mike McCarthy. Without offensive consistency, the Packers won’t win their fifth straight NFC North title Sunday night at Lambeau against the Vikings.
12. Pittsburgh (9-6). LW: 5. Going from 5 to 12 isn’t a drop. It is a plummet. That’s what you get for losing to a team that started these skill players Sunday: Ryan Mallett, Kamar Aiken, Javorius Allen, Konrad Reuland, Maxx Williams and James Hurst (a tackle-eligible lined up at tight end). That’s a horrible loss by the Steelers, and it shows what can happen in a rivalry game.
13. Atlanta (8-7). LW: 16. Five players were wonderful for Atlanta in the upset of the Panthers: Matt Ryan (so accurate), Julio Jones (so competitive), Vic Beasley (so disruptive, particularly late), Jonathan Babineaux (such an interior force) and Devonta Freeman (such a good all-around back).
14. St. Louis (7-8). LW: 15. Now, Jeff Fisher: Can you coach these players to play against the other 30 teams in the league the way you coach them to play Seattle?
15. Houston (8-7). LW: 17. Now it looks like Brian Hoyer could make it through concussion protocol to play Sunday. As of this morning, he’s been out with concussion symptoms for 16 days. Amazing how well the Texans were able to survive with third (T.J. Yates) and fourth (Brandon Weeden) quarterbacks playing important games.
Also receiving votes:
16. Buffalo (7-8). LW: not rated. I see Rex had his annual mea culpas this week.
17. Oakland (7-8). LW: 19. The team’s too well supported to fly south.
18. Tampa Bay (6-9). LW: 18. Playing to finish 4-2 in the division Sunday versus Carolina.
19. Philadelphia (6-9). LW: 13. You’ll regret it, Philadelphia, if Chip Kelly leaves town.
20. Detroit (6-9) LW: not rated. Doesn’t sound like Jim Caldwell will be toasting in the New Year with the local scribes.
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