An NFL season is hard to predict, but whether it is 2019 or ’29, one constant will hold true: Any given year hinges on the wild vacillations of Ryan Fitzpatrick. He is the gatekeeper, a niche component of the chaos theory, creating a perpetual state of disorder.
The Patriots found that out the hard way, losing a 27-24 stunner at home to the going-nowhere Dolphins thanks to a late touchdown drive from the freewheeling, lushly bearded quarterback. This momentary blip, combined with Chiefs’ 31-21 win over the Chargers, cost New England a first-round bye and the No. 2 seed. It will be the first time in a decade that the Patriots will be forced to pluck their way through the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs.
Elsewhere, the playoff field took shape close to the way we thought it would. The Eagles gutted out an ugly, rain-soaked victory over the Giants with a handful of practice squad players, due to injuries. Philadelphia enters the playoffs the way they have grown accustomed to: On the heels of a thrilling, underdog narrative that their fans will never fully appreciate as they gear themselves up to rip members of the roster whom they have only learned about a week ago.
The Titans clung to the final spot thanks, in part, to some gutsy throws by Ryan Tannehill and some incredible receiver play by A.J. Brown, an emerging star worth keeping an eye on in the playoffs (going against the Texans’ second stringers helps, too). Derrick Henry—who has had 100-yard games in five of his last six weeks, including a 188-yard game against the Chiefs, a 159-yard game against the Jaguars and a 149-yard game against the Colts—went for more than 200 yards and three touchdowns, securing the 2019 rushing title in the process. In a playoff field lacking a bit in marquee running back names (Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Aaron Jones and Mark Ingram notwithstanding), he could be one of the biggest singular forces to be reckoned with.
All of a sudden, a Patriots team that failed to defeat one former Bill Belichick disciple at season’s end, now faces another in Mike Vrabel in the wild-card round. The Titans have earned a reputation as aggressively middling over the last few years, but who is signing up to face them right now in the playoffs?
Over in the NFC, the Seahawks and 49ers decided the division—and the No. 1 seed in the division—with a classic in Seattle, arguably the best game we’ve seen all season. Deebo Samuel and D.K. Metcalf have emerged as legitimate burgeoning stars, especially when abusing favorable single coverage. Russell Wilson continued a campaign that, had it not been for Lamar Jackson, would have him atop the MVP conversation.
The game came down to a singular moment—Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister leaning toward the goal line, down five points on the team’s last offensive play, about a quarter of an inch short of a miraculous game-winning touchdown.
We flirted with a Marshawn Lynch goal-line redux. We watched the NFL’s self-destructive approach to reviewable pass interference flare up again at a critical time. We saw two of the best teams in football, hopefully on a collision course for a playoff rematch.
Here’s a look at the now cemented playoff slate.
1. Baltimore Ravens (BYE)
2. Kansas City Chiefs (BYE)
3. New England Patriots vs. 6. Tennessee Titans
4. Houston Texans vs. 5. Buffalo Bills
1. San Francisco 49ers (BYE)
2. Green Bay Packers (BYE)
3. New Orleans Saints vs. 6. Minnesota Vikings
4. Philadelphia Eagles vs. 5. Seattle Seahawks
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