Joy in Cleveland, relief in Indianapolis, and a healthy dose of shame in Philadelphia. These are the NFL Week 17 Divisional Takeaways.
AFC East: Tough Times for Tua
Division Winner: Buffalo Bills (13-3)
Win and you’re in.
Entering Sunday’s contest with the Bills, the Dolphins had several paths to clinching one of the AFC wildcard spots. Most importantly, regardless of what happened with the other AFC teams, Miami controlled their own destiny; beating the Bills would put them in the playoffs for the first time since the 2016-17 season. The Dolphins would have to win this one without magic, however, as veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick tested positive for Covid-19 the week before the game, putting Tua Tagovailoa back as Miami’s starter.
At the end of the first quarter, the Dolphins led 3-0. It seemed Miami’s defense had come to play. The hope was that Buffalo had seen enough and was going to bring in the reserves so as to avoid any potential injuries before the playoffs.
Not so much.
Six plays into the second quarter, the Bills scored their first of four touchdowns in the period. At halftime, their lead was 28-6. The second half would see Josh Allen and the Bills’ key players resting on the sideline, but that hardly had an effect as the Bills matched their first-half scoring total as part of their 56-26 win. The Dolphins’ loss paired with all three of the Colts, Browns, and Ravens winning meant Miami had been eliminated from postseason contention.
A 10-6 near playoff season surpassed expectations in Miami this year. Their record, combined with a sought after rookie quarterback, suggests they’re a year ahead of schedule. The problem is their record and what you see on film with Tagovailoa under center don’t align.
With fewer passing attempts, Fitzpatrick amassed over 2,000 more passing yards than the rookie. On a per-game basis, Fitzpatrick threw 50 yards and full touchdown more than Tagovailoa, as well. Watching the Dolphins’ offense in games with Tagovailoa under center, it’s difficult to envision how they will reach the heights many in Miami imagined when they drafted the former Heisman Trophy finalist as the fifth pick in the 2020 draft.
It seems unlikely the Dolphins will look to trade their young quarterback. Less likely is that they’ll pursue another quarterback in the draft. This leaves Miami in purgatory, forced to wait until next season to see if Tua can make the strides to become the player they expected.
If nothing else, they still have this guy.
AFC North: The Trilogy
Division Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Well, Cleveland, you did it.
With your playoff hopes on the line, you did what no one else thought you could. With nearly your full complement of players after the previous week’s COVID-19 debacle, you laid everything on the line and managed a two point, 24-22 home win over the Mason Rudolph led Steelers. Your reward? A playoff birth; your first in 18 seasons.
Also, a rematch with that same Steelers team. Except for this time, the game will be in Pittsburgh. Oh, and Ben Roethlisberger will be back. Almost forgot, you’ll be without your head coach who this week tested positive for Covid-19.
Baker Mayfield was good enough in Week 17. He didn’t hit the 200-yard passing mark, but he avoided turning the ball over and sealed the game with his legs on a late fourth quarter third down conversion. Nick Chubb was excellent, grinding his way to 108 yards and a touchdown. Cleveland was at their best this season when they were running the ball down the opposing teams’ throats and playing sound defense. If they hope to make any sort of playoff run, that seems to be their best formula to do so.
This will be the third time this season these two teams have faced off. The first was Week 6, with the Steelers dominating in a 38-7 win. The second, the Week 17 Cleveland win. This will complete the trilogy for these two teams and put one of them a step closer to the Lombardi Trophy. Does 38-year-old Ben Roethlisberger have any more magic up his sleeve? Can Cleveland steal their first playoff win since the Clinton administration?
Just like when my girlfriend tells me it seems like I’m making positive improvements in my life, I’m going to have to see it to believe it.
AFC South: Fancy Seeing You Here
Division Winner: Tennessee Titans (11-5)
Beating the Jaguars was the easy part.
Indianapolis’ 28-14 win over Jacksonville was never in question, and as expected, their playoff hopes would rely upon the outcomes of the other AFC wildcard contenders. The Bills beating the Dolphins ultimately sealed a playoff spot for the Colts.
For Tennessee, the scenario was more straightforward. Their 41-38 win over Houston was closer than expected, but all they had to do was win that matchup to guarantee themselves the division title. These teams complete an AFC playoff field that doesn’t have a single representative with fewer than 11 wins. The NFC playoff teams, for comparison, include teams with win totals of 10, 8, and 7.
The Colts now face a surging Bills team on the road. Buffalo does most of its damage as a high-scoring offense that forces opponents into abandoning their game plan to keep pace. Historically, what has been the best way to combat that? An opposing offense that can sustain long, efficient drives, and a stout defense.
Since Week 13, Colts running back Jonathan Taylor has averaged 130 yards and over a touchdown per game, including 30 rushes for 253 yards and 2 touchdowns in their game last week. Their defense is top-10 in the league in points and yards allowed, and top five in turnovers.
The Titans face the Ravens in a rematch of their Week 11 overtime win. Baltimore is much improved since that point, but the same formula of limiting turnovers and grinding away with Derrick Henry could position Tennessee to move on to the Divisional Round.
The question all season with these teams was who would come out on top of the division. The answer was ultimately Tennessee. With both teams making it into the playoffs, the question now is who will be the last standing.
AFC West: Bolts Up
Division Winner: Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)
Is there a single non-playoff team more optimistic about their future than the Los Angeles Chargers?
There shouldn’t be.
With their 38-21 win over the Chiefs on Sunday, the Chargers finished the season with four consecutive victories. The offense, led by likely Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert, was competitive against just about everyone, showing flashes of brilliance. The defense is only a few moves away from being on the same level. Most importantly, head coach Anthony Lynn, the human version of a smiling anvil, was relieved of duties this week. Los Angeles is now positioned to hire a head coach tailored to their young franchise quarterback, with the bells and whistles of a coaching job in Los Angeles and a boatload of money as additional carrots to dangle.
It would be a stretch to say the Chargers will be a legitimate threat to the Chiefs in the division next season. What seems entirely possible, though, is Los Angeles being just a few tweaks away from being a playoff contender. Looking at the three wildcard teams in the AFC this season, it isn’t difficult to envision Los Angeles taking one of their spots. The Colts will likely have a new quarterback. The Browns will still be the Browns. The Ravens seem to be the best bet to remain in the playoff picture, but even they showed vulnerabilities that need addressing throughout the regular season.
The Chargers started the season by drafting their franchise quarterback. Their playmakers on both sides of the ball put them on track to carry this season’s momentum into next year. If they can hit a home-run on their new coaching hire?
The sky is the limit.
NFC East: The Philly Shame Special
Division Winner: Washington Football Team (7-9)
The Giants’ 23-19 win over the Cowboys put them on track for a playoff birth. If the Eagles beat Washington, New York would be in. If Washington beat the Eagles, though, they would win the NFC East.
Washington was playing for their playoff lives. Philadelphia had nothing to play for in terms of their own playoff potential. There was, however, still pride on the line.
The Eagles opted not to play for pride.
After an awful season, (four wins, benching their $128 million franchise quarterback, and tying the Bengals, you would think Doug Pederson and the Eagles would want to end the year on a positive note. The only glimmer of hope had been the emergence of Jalen Hurts. Ending the season with your young quarterback leading your team to a victory, eliminating a division rival? That’s how you end a season with momentum.
This is why it was all the more mystifying when, down just three points to start the fourth quarter, Pederson elected to bench Hurts in favor of backup Nate Sudfeld. Sudfeld went on to complete 5 passes in the quarter, taking 2 sacks and committing 2 turnovers, an interception, and a lost fumble, on the way to a 20-14 loss.
Washington advanced to the playoffs. New York was eliminated.
When Pederson benched Carson Wentz in favor of Hurts in Week 14, it gave the Eagles life. They didn’t win every game or turn into an unstoppable force, but both sides of the ball began playing with new energy. Regardless of some half-baked excuse about how the plan all along was to give Sudfeld an opportunity, the benching of Hurts combined with questionable play-calling put Eagles’ players and fans in the unenviable position of wondering whether their head coach was simply inept, or if he was actively trying to lose the game with an ulterior motive in mind.
It was a fitting ending for this division’s regular-season. A game that was tough to watch, between two bad teams, broadcast in primetime with significant playoff implications was perfectly on-brand for the 2020 NFC East.
Let us never speak of it again.
NFC North: Windy City Winners
Division Winner: Green Bay Packers (13-3)
Mitch Trubisky is going to start a playoff game.
Despite their 35-16 loss to the Packers on Sunday, the Bears clinched their spot in the playoffs by virtue of Arizona’s loss to the Rams, setting up what will either be a miraculous Bears upset in New Orleans or a Saints win in reality.
I’m not a gambling man, but I’ve tried to imagine what it would take for me to bet on Mitch Trubisky and the Bears. Could I talk myself into liking the Bears defense against Drew Brees, just a few weeks removed from several broken ribs? If Brees‘ struggles somehow lead to defensive points for Chicago, or if Alvin Kamara isn’t able to get going in his return from COVID-19, isn’t it reasonable to think Chicago could make this game competitive?
Since we’re talking about what it would take for me to bet on Trubisky, I’ll give you a quick story. Last season, I went to see an Eagles game in Philadelphia against the Bears. It was my first NFL game in a long time. With no dog in the fight, all I wanted was a competitive, good game.
The Bears didn’t score a point until there were six minutes left in the third quarter. Trubisky went 10-21 for 125 yards. For the first time in my life when I overheard someone in the stands declare they themselves could have done better at quarterback, I didn’t scoff. I instead turned around to simply ensure they were capable of standing. That alone wouldn’t put them far off.
So no, I’m not a gambler. If I was, though, the laundry list of atrocities I’d have to commit before I hated myself enough to bet on the Bears this weekend would stretch the continent.
NFC South: Here Comes Tampa Bay
Division Winner: New Orleans Saints (12-4)
There seem to be two main schools of thought.
On one hand, there’s a belief that a win is a win; no need to dig deeper. This season’s Chiefs team would be a good example; they’ve beaten several bad teams by small margins, but that hasn’t impacted their reputation as one of, if not the best, teams in the league.
On the other hand, some believe truly dominant teams should, well, dominate inferior opponents. If this is your way of thinking, who else looks better than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers right now?
Since their three point loss to Kansas City in Week 12, Tampa Bay is 4-0. The wins have all been against non-playoff teams, but in them, they have outscored their opponents 148-75. Their offense has averaged 448 yards, and Tom Brady has averaged over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns per contest.
Tampa Bay began the season as a team that needed breathing room. They were incorporating Brady into a new offense. By the time their Week 5 loss to the Bears came along, they were left for dead. The next week they blew out the Packers and had righted the ship. The narrative has shifted at least four more times since then, but there’s no denying they enter their playoff matchup with Washington playing their best football of the season.
Maybe how you beat teams isn’t the question. For Tampa Bay, what if the question is whether these wins have been about gaining confidence in preparation for a playoff run? If you’re the rest of the NFC, you’d better hope that’s not the case.
This is Tom Brady in January, and no matter how old he is or where he calls home, that always seems to be a dangerous combination.
NFC West: Los Angeles Limps In
Division Winner: Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
Week 17. A playoff spot on the line. Division rivals.
Jared Goff was a scratch entering the game due to his broken thumb, and for many, this looked as though it would pave the way for an Arizona win and playoff birth. That was until Kyler Murray was sacked on just the seventh offensive play of the game, injuring his ankle and ending his day.
That’s when the real game began. It was time for the quarterback clash of the titans.
Murray’s departure would ultimately prove too costly to overcome for Arizona, as the Rams went on to beat the Cardinals 18-7, stamping their ticket to the playoffs and preventing Arizona from reaching the postseason.
Los Angeles begins the playoffs with a road matchup against the Seahawks. At this point, it remains unclear whether Jared Goff will be able to return. The Seahawks are currently 3.5 point favorites and considering their 20-9 win over the Rams just two weeks ago, it’s fair to wonder whether that line is overly generous.
It wasn’t long ago that this was the popular choice as the best division in the NFL. The Rams were a trendy Super Bowl pick, and now we’re asking whether they’re better off without their franchise quarterback. Kyler Murray was an MVP candidate, and now there are questions about his long-term durability. Even Russell Wilson went from playing his best football to losing to the Giants and barely squeaking past a skeleton version of the 49ers defense.
Will I be blown away if Seattle makes a playoff run to the NFC Championship game? No. Would it shock me if John Wolford and the Rams came into Seattle and dealt them a first-round exit?
Not at all.