With only a third of the eventual 12-team NFL playoff field set, there’s an unusual amount of drama remaining in the regular season’s final two weekends. Since the 12-team format was adopted in 1990, only in 1995 had fewer teams clinched postseason berths after 15 weeks, when only three teams qualified with two games left to play.
But while that makes it a different kind of December in the NFL -- for example, the Cowboys are actually winning games this month -- there is still the constancy of the Patriots, Colts and Broncos to count on in the AFC. Those three represent the only division champions we’ve seen crowned so far, and it’s remarkable how regularly they’ve appeared at this time of year, ready to chase the shiny trophy once again.
The Colts have made the playoffs a mind-boggling 14 of the past 16 seasons, a streak of sustained success that started in 1999, Peyton Manning’s second season in the league. The Patriots are working on a 12- out of 14-year playoff run, coinciding, of course, with the ascension of Tom Brady to the starting quarterback gig in 2001. And the Broncos, though not as reliable a winner, have made seven playoff trips in a dozen years, including four consecutive AFC West titles, a feat Denver somehow never managed in its John Elway-led glory era.
And if frequent playoff entries such as Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati add themselves to the postseason field in the coming 10 days, the names and faces that dot this year’s AFC half of the Super Bowl tournament will be as familiar as family members showing up over the holidays. That’s not a bad development whatsoever, even though the upstart-club factor will be decidedly missing. The next two weeks will fill in all of the blanks that remain, and give us the entire picture in the well-scrambled NFC races. But so far, so good as the playoff field starts to come together. After a season that was generally found lacking, maybe a memorable January is in store.
• Last week: 12-4; Season: 150-73 (.673).
• Best pick in Week 15: Seattle 27, San Francisco 17 (Actual score: Seahawks 17-7).
• Worst pick in Week 15: Cleveland 24, Cincinnati 20 (Actual score: Bengals 30-0. Thanks, Johnny).
Below are my Week 16 picks. And here’s my pick for Thursday night’s game between Tennessee and Jacksonville.
Eagles fans are in a state of shock, disbelief and quite a bit of outrage, judging from the snippets of talk radio chatter I’ve heard in my drive time around the Philly area I now call home. Sitting at 9-3 on Thanksgiving night, the Eagles were still undefeated at home and looked set up to make a run at a first-round bye. But then Seattle and Dallas happened, and now they need help just to make the playoffs. But they don't need a ton of help, and all is not lost.
I’m not telling anyone around here to R-E-L-A-X, mind you, but the Cowboys could definitely lose at home -- where they are just 3-4 this season -- against the Colts, and at Washington next week is no gimme either, given the way Jay Gruden’s team beat Dallas on the road. The Eagles have to take care of their part of the deal and beat the third- and fourth-place clubs in the division the next two weeks, hoping that the Cowboys belatedly turn back into the Cowboys of recent December vintage.
With 49ers head coach (for now) Jim Harbaugh having worked as a full-time coach in just two places -- San Diego and the San Francisco bay area -- it’s somewhat fitting a Chargers at 49ers game will be one of his last two games on the job he’s almost certain to lose in roughly 10 days. But if Harbaugh ends up in Oakland as the Raiders new coach -- and that’s where I’d put my chips at this point if I were a betting man -- he’ll be able to keep that cozy little California streak alive. The Chargers need this game to keep their scant playoff hopes alive, but I could see San Francisco’s players wanting to put on one last quality prime-time showing for the coach who took them to such great heights the past three seasons.
I could see where the Dolphins can make a pretty good case for firing coach Joe Philbin after a third consecutive non-playoff season, but tell me who they get to replace him and I’ll tell you if I think it’s a good move or not. I wouldn’t just scrap the offensive system that quarterback Ryan Tannehill has made solid progress in this season and start over. So if it’s not Philbin, it’d be somebody who can take what Miami has already figured out and add to it, rather than just bulldoze and rebuild. It’s easy to fire, but the important part is the next hire.
One team can’t keep its cornerbacks healthy and the other is working on its fourth starting quarterback of the season. The Ravens have been laying in the weeds all season in the AFC, but I think they’re going to be playoff-bound at 11-5 and widely viewed as the team top-seeded New England really doesn’t want to see visit Gillette Stadium. As for Houston, if Bill O’Brien coaxes an 8-8 season out of his squad with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Tom Savage and Case Keenum at starting quarterback, the man should be in line for a few Coach of the Year votes.
You may not remember this, but the Lions and Bucs were the two teams that were reportedly interested in trading for Denver quarterback Jay Cutler back in early 2009, when rookie Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels was at least listening to offers in a three-team deal that would have netted Denver the services of Patriots backup quarterback Matt Cassel. Those talks broke up the nascent Cutler-McDaniels marriage and prompted Cutler to demand a trade, which eventually sent him to Chicago. Bet the Lions are glad they dodged that bullet and the Bears didn’t. And don’t forget, Cutler was swapped to Chicago in exchange for Kyle Orton and draft picks. And while Orton is still around and winning games as an NFL starter, Cutler finds himself on the bench this week, behind the lightly accomplished Jimmy Clausen. You can’t really even try to make this stuff up.
And to think it was less than a month ago the Browns were 7-4 and looking like a playoff contender for the first time in seven seasons. Now every ex-Browns quarterback this side of Mike Phipps (look him up, kids) is lining up to take pot shots at anyone and everyone who ever passed through the Cleveland front office. I get it, because of the abysmal track record, but in fairness, head coach Mike Pettine, general manager Ray Farmer and owner Jimmy Haslam just walked through the door a minute ago, relatively speaking. They probably did get the Brian Hoyer/Johnny Manziel call wrong the past couple weeks, but I can find little fault with their major decisions before that, unless Manziel flames out spectacularly in the days to come. The Panthers should benefit from all the disarray that has descended on Cleveland yet again, keeping their improbable playoff hopes alive. I can not lie: I’m rooting for Carolina to be the first 6-9-1 division champion in NFL history, just because I want to see what NFL Films can make of that highlight film.
Every time I think the Saints have turned a corner, they wind up turning three more and end up right back where they started. But this is their make-up game, the one that could wipe away all the other ills of their maddening season. One lousy Superdome win, which was once among the NFL’s surest bets, is all that separates New Orleans from at least playing for the NFC South title at hapless Tampa Bay in Week 17. The Saints are not very good, but they’ll be a little bit better than an Atlanta club with a horrendous defense.
I still think the Packers earn the No. 2 seed and get a first-round bye, but last week’s loss at Buffalo was very costly, and means they likely have surrendered the chance to stay at Lambeau throughout the postseason. It wasn’t just that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers passing game was off. It was that Buffalo’s darn good defense forced the issue plenty. Look at who Rodgers has played his worst against this season: losses to Seattle, Detroit and Buffalo, and a narrow win at Miami. All four of those clubs have quality defenses, and caused him some trouble. Keep that in mind as the playoffs loom and the caliber of Green Bay’s opponent intensifies.
The good news is the Steelers don’t have to play any more teams with losing records this season. I know that doesn’t sound like good news, but just ask Mike Tomlin, he’ll tell you. Pittsburgh struggles with those losers. The Chiefs aren’t losers. But their 8-6 record leaves them in a very precarious position, and they’re not going to make the playoffs without pulling off a road upset against the Steelers and then beating the Chargers at Arrowhead next week. I know someone in Pittsburgh who really wants this game: Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the ex-Chiefs head coach who once took Kansas City to the playoffs. Maybe if Pittsburgh wins, he’ll get a game ball for the mantle.
I know Rex Ryan’s Jets teams have traditionally played Bill Belichick’s Patriots pretty tough. But Geno Smith isn’t beating Tom Brady. No way. No how. Just not happening. In what will be Ryan’s final home game with New York, he’s still looking up -- way up -- at the Beasts of the East in New England. The gap between first place and last place in the AFC East has never looked wider in the six-year Ryan era.
Alas, it looks like the Rams are seven-win material once again, for the fourth time in five seasons. After St. Louis came up very small at home against the crippled Cardinals, it will make the Giants pay, and then probably lose in Week 17 at Seattle to finish 7-9. That’s an even worse rut to be in than the 8-8 flat line that the Rams’ Jeff Fisher experienced for three years in a row as Tennessee’s coach in 1996-98. Fisher and Tom Coughlin are old-school coaching adversaries out of the AFC Central, with the biggest win of Fisher’s long career coming with the 13-3 wild-card Titans defeating the top-seeded 14-2 Jacksonville in the 1999 AFC Championship Game. Fisher got the best of it that day, but Coughlin won the war, earning two Super Bowl rings with the Giants.
Doug Marrone saved Buffalo’s season when he switched quarterbacks from EJ Manuel to Kyle Orton in October, and getting to eight wins with a great shot at a winning record should be plenty enough improvement to earn Marrone a third season on the job. The Raiders have won their past two at home, beating clubs that had winning records at the time (Chiefs and 49ers), so the Bills will have to work to get to 9-6 and stay alive in the AFC wild-card race. But having something to play for in Week 17 hasn’t occurred in Buffalo since 2004, and that Bills defense will get the job done one more time in 2014.
It’s such a dangerous game for Dallas, because Andrew Luck could riddle the Cowboys secondary all day long and wreck the season in the Metroplex. As humongous a win as Dallas had last Sunday night in Philadelphia, it won’t mean much if the Eagles win at Washington on Saturday and then the Cowboys get beat by the Colts. Indy is locked into either the No. 3 or 4 seed in the AFC, but that doesn’t mean Chuck Pagano’s team won’t keep the pedal to the metal. The old Cowboys would find a way to kick this game away, and ruin their previous good work. But this year’s Cowboys have won the games they absolutely had to win, and that’s the trend line that I’ve decided to heed.
If the Cardinals can somehow pull out one more win, wrapping up the NFC West and the top seed in the NFC playoffs in one fell swoop, it’ll go down as one of the greatest coaching jobs in recent NFL history. But I just don’t see Arizona and third-string-turned-starting-quarterback Ryan Lindley having the offensive firepower to score much on Seattle, given the roll the Seahawks defense has been on. If Seattle intends to get back to Glendale in six weeks, it has to have this game and the path it would provide to the No. 1 seed. Everything has been falling the Seahawks’ way for the past month or so, and Arizona won’t be stopping them now.
The Bengals and Andy Dalton are again assigned to play in prime-time, so hide the women and children. Under the lights has not been Cincinnati’s favorite setting this season, with the Week 5 beatdown in New England and the Week 10 meltdown at home against the Browns being two more examples of the Bengals coming up small when the stage is the biggest. Dalton is 2-9 as a starter in either prime-time or in the postseason, and he has looked every bit as shaky as those numbers sound. Meanwhile Peyton Manning is 8-0 in his career against Cincinnati, and the Broncos need this game to try to chase down the Patriots for the AFC’s top seed. Granted, Denver isn’t getting it done with a flourish these days, but the Broncos are getting it done. With a loss, the Bengals are going to find themselves needing to win at Pittsburgh in Week 17 to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010.