We are through the bye weeks, officially, just in time for Thanksgiving week. Playoff races are beginning to solidify. Some teams are falling by the wayside, done in by injuries and other losses. In this week’s musings, we’ll look forward to the upcoming key matchups set up by Sunday’s results.
Minnesota Enters Key Playoff Stretch Coming Off the Packers’ Loss
We previewed the Vikings in last week’s podcast. As I noted then, the Vikings’ schedule is vastly different starting this weekend, compared to the first 9 games that saw them jump out to a 7-2 start. Including last week’s results, the Vikings 7 wins came against 6 teams with losing records, and the win over Kansas City (now 5-5) is the best win by opponent record.
The rest of the schedule features only one team with a losing record–Chicago at home. While it may sound funny to say that a week 10 game against a division opponent was must-win, for a 7-2 team, in many ways it was. The result of yesterday’s game certainly didn’t do anything to quell those of us who think that Minnesota is an average team who has played an easy schedule and won some close games. Even with the defense largely containing Aaron Rodgers and limiting the Packers to several field goals early, the Vikings never really challenged in the game past halftime.
Practically speaking, it also means that Minnesota faces a two-game gauntlet that could largely decide their playoff fate. The Vikings go to Atlanta this week, reeling themselves at 6-4 after a 5-0 start. The winner of that game will hold a key tiebreaker, and if it’s Minnesota, they put themselves in a safer position. Then, they host Seattle in what could be a decisive game for a wildcard spot.
Seattle Seahawks’ Season Comes Down to the Next Two Weeks
The Seahawks have again come back from the brink, though they have hardly looked like their championship-caliber selves for any sustained stretches, even in victory. What is Seattle’s best win of the year? At the woeful San Francisco 49ers, or at home this week versus the same team? By one point at Dallas playing with Matt Cassel at quarterback? A close home win over Detroit? Or maybe managing to destroy a Bears team starting Jimmy Clausen? Those are the choices to date.
Seattle enters their own two-game gauntlet, when Pittsburgh comes to town this weekend. A victory–and perhaps two–in the next two weeks is almost mandatory for the two-time defending NFC champs. The schedule is otherwise the easiest of any wildcard contender. After already getting wins over teams with Clausen, Cassel, and Gabbert at QB, they will now get Baltimore without Joe Flacco, along with Cleveland and whatever is going on with St. Louis on offense, before what could be a relatively meaningless rematch game with Arizona in week 17.
If Seattle wins in Minnesota and beats to Pittsburgh, they get to 7-5 and are in good shape. A loss means they basically have to win out.
Tampa Bay Announces Themselves as Potential Intruders in the Playoff Party
The NFC East is a mediocre mess (again). The Rams are an offensive disaster outside of the brilliance of Todd Gurley, and have lost three in a row. It’s hard to see multiple teams coming out of the NFC East to have a winning record, with the Giants currently leading at 5-5. That means the two wildcard spots come down to 2nd place in the NFC North, Seattle, Atlanta … and now, Tampa Bay.
The young Buccaneers announced their potential with a destruction of Philadelphia yesterday. Tampa Bay rolled up 521 yards on the Eagles on the road, with Jameis Winston throwing 5 touchdown passes, and Doug Martin chewing through the defense at will.
Just a month ago, Tampa Bay was coming off a crushing loss at Washington, when they blew a big lead to fall to 2-4, prompting the Kirk Cousins’ postgame outburst. Atlanta, meanwhile, was at 6-1. Now, the Bucs are only one game back of the postseason behind Atlanta.
The remaining Tampa schedule is loaded with toss-up games that they can win if yesterday was a sign of things to come, and not a one-week aberration. We’ve seen young teams get on a roll over the second half of a season (Washington in RG3’s rookie year, a young Jacksonville team in 1996, come to mind). The toughest remaining game is at Carolina, but that is in week 17. The Panthers might have their spot secured by then.
If one team is going to crash the Vikings-Seahawks-Falcons party for the two wildcard spots, it will be Tampa Bay.
The Chiefs Have Completely Turned Things Around, and Might Be the Wildcard Favorites
The last time a team started 1-5 and made the postseason was the Cincinnati Bengals … in 1970. On October 18th, Kansas City lost at Minnesota to drop to 1-5, a week after the team lost Jamaal Charles to a season-ending knee injury, and blew a 17-3 halftime lead at home to the Bears.
All they’ve done since is go 4-0, while allowing 39 total points. None of the opponents have even reached 200 passing yards, despite playing from behind. For the second week in a row, the Chiefs defense emasculated a veteran passer within the division. A week after sending Peyton Manning to the bench with 5 interceptions, they harassed Philip Rivers all day long, holding the Chargers to 3 points and only 201 total yards.
The Kansas City schedule is the complete opposite of the Vikings. Six of the first nine opponents are in playoff position, including games at Green Bay and Cincinnati. The Chiefs get Buffalo this week at home (the Bills play the Patriots tonight and will be in a flat-footed tie for the final wildcard spot with a loss). None of the remaining opponents have a winning record after that contest. Things can swing in a hurry, but the Chiefs look like a team capable of continuing a nearly-unprecedented run to the postseason after a 1-5 start, with what is ahead.
The AFC South Has Matched the NFC East in Wins
The AFC South–with good cause–has been the laughingstock of the league this year. Well, they now have the exact same record as the NFC EAST collectively, after a day where the Colts won at Atlanta, and the Texans beat the Jets at home. Both divisions are the only ones without a single team with a winning record. Both are collectively 16-24. The only difference is we get subjected to more national games out of the NFC East. Here’s your NFC East trivia question of the day: when was the last year that a NFC East team got a first round bye in the playoffs?
Turning to these divisions they have two different feels to them. The Colts have largely survived without Andrew Luck. The Texans have turned around a disastrous stretch with two of their best games, now thriving with Ryan Mallett napping elsewhere. The Jaguars have managed to get back into it without looking particularly good. This feels like it will come down to Houston at Indianapolis on December 20th. The Colts are 3-0 in the division and won at Houston with Matt Hasselbeck starting already.
Meanwhile, the NFC East is just a disaster. The Giants have been nothing if not unpredictable over the last five years. They can beat, or lose, to anyone. The schedule is not easy down the stretch. If they can get to 9-7 they win it, but short of that opens the door.
The Eagles are in turmoil. We’ve seen teams come back from these kind of horrible stretches this year. But losing at home to two Florida teams in November is not a good look. Getting whipped by 28 at home is not the first gut punch this season in Philly. Washington looks capable of beating some limited teams; not so much against good ones. They followed up 510 yards against the Saints with 186 against the Panthers (but, but, it was the officiating).
Then there is Dallas. Tony Romo is back. They won in Miami yesterday, to get to 3-7, 3-0 with Romo, and 0-7 while he was out. If they beat Carolina this week, then they may be on to something in a weak division. A loss probably does it, though. Still likely need to get to 8-8.
Carolina Continues to Get Better While Remaining Undefeated
Cam Newton’s MVP campaign is in full dance mode now. The Panthers surged to 10-0, with Newton throwing 5 touchdowns. He is now at 20 pass TDs and 6 rush TDs on the season. The Panthers are 12th in net yards per pass attempt on offense, playing on a team that is basically Greg Olsen and pray for rain.
Newton’s career high in touchdown passes is 24. He is already at 382 rushing yards, pretty much on his career average. He could be the first quarterback to rush for 500 yards while throwing 30 touchdown passes since Randall Cunningham in 1990.
Meanwhile, the Panthers defense, which was pretty dominant for three quarters before allowing Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers to rack up yards in the final period, has now given up 20 total first downs in the last two games. They were already a pretty good unit, but have now moved to scary.
[photos via USA Today Sports Images]