If Andrew Luck and Alex Smith meet again next week, the results could be different (USA Today Sports Images)
The playoffs are more clear in the AFC, where the four divisions have been clinched and the Kansas City Chiefs are locked into the No. 5 spot as a wildcard team. Although there will be jockeying for the order of the top four seeds, and several teams remain in the hunt for the No. 6 spot, we mostly know who is in.
Let’s try to unravel the madness in an early look at the pivotal Week 17, which has come to be known as rivalry week with the scheduling changes made a few years ago where it’s all division teams playing head to head in the final week before the playoffs.
The Case of the Colts and Chiefs
The Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs played in Week 16 in K.C., and it wasn’t close: The Colts dominated all phases of the game and won going away. It would appear they are the team with the much-ballyhooed momentum going into the postseason, especially with take that Andy Reid could give his starters rest on Sunday in a fairly meaningless game, a decision that has drawn some debate considering how poorly the Chiefs played last week.
But momentum is a funny thing in the NFL. First of all, it’s a bit of a misnomer. Consider the previous few Super Bowl champions for a moment.
The Baltimore Ravens, who won it all last season, lost four of five heading into the postseason and looked to be cooked before kickoff in their playoff game against the Denver Broncos, even after beating the Colts in the wildcard round.
The New York Giants had to barely sneak into the playoffs in 2011, having to win the final regular-season game of the NFL schedule just to creep in as the four-seed with a 9-7 mark. They got hot in the playoffs, building on the big Week 17 victory.
Same with the Green Bay Packers in the 2010 season. They lost three of four prior to winning their final two regular-season games to get in by the skin of their teeth. They then rode to a title as the six seed.
So let’s look at this year’s Colts and Chiefs. Both teams seems to fit into this category of eventual Super Bowl teams that struggled through later portions of the season but have the makeup to make a run.
Working in the Chiefs’ favor is their road record this season. They are 6-1 away from Arrowhead Stadium heading into Sunday’s finale at San Diego, with their one loss this season to the Denver Broncos. And prior to Week 15, they had been excellent in the turnover ratio department, which typically is a good harbinger for playoff-successful teams.
The Colts have had their warts, but big victories this season against the 49ers, Seahawks, Broncos and Chiefs show they can take down the big boys on any given day. They have no embarrassing losses, either, save for perhaps the 30-point home setback to the St. Louis Rams that we’ll go ahead and call an aberration.
The playoffs are all about turnovers and quarterback play. If the Chiefs’ Alex Smith can get back to his caretaking ways of the early season and the Colts’ Andrew Luck can continue pulling rabbits out of hats, as he has done, we could be talking about two battle-tested teams capable of making runs in a weaker AFC field.
The only problem? They could face each other a week from Sunday in Indianapolis, and the Colts might be the more tuned-up team as they try Sunday to improve their seed. That would be an fascinating rematch that could play out differently than the lopsided game last week.
11 wins and out?
The Arizona Cardinals can win Sunday’s game against the 49ers and still not make the postseason. They also need the New Orleans Saints to lose or tie against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who might only be playing for their coach’s job.
It would only be the second time since the NFL expanded to 32 teams that an 11-5 team missed the playoffs — the other being the 2008 New England Patriots, who were led by Matt Cassel. They had an NFL-best 6-2 record, but that Patriots team didn’t get in because of the NFL’s controversial postseason structure and tiebreakers.
This Cardinals team deserves to get in, for whatever that’s worth. They feature a swarming defense that should be good for years, some exciting playmakers on offense and just-good-enough quarterback and offensive line play to make them a dangerous entrant.
Can they win, get a little luck and get in? That remains to be seen, but they could be the martyr team that loses out but perhaps forces the NFL to reconsider how the postseason teams are picked and seeded.
Flynn and in?
If the Green Bay Packers win Sunday at Soldier Field, they are in the postseason — miraculously. It has been a wild ride for the Packers, who watched Aaron Rodgers go down with a broken collarbone in the team’s first matchup with the Chicago Bears and now wait for the decision as to whether he can play Sunday in the rematch.
If Rodgers can’t go, it will be Matt Flynn’s opportunity again. Frankly, what he has done this season has been relatively amazing. Having been cut in the preseason by the Oakland Raiders (after starting a game for them in Week 4), and later midseason by the Buffalo Bills, it’s a wonder Flynn even is in the league right now.
His opportunity came only because of the injuries to Rodgers and his original backup, Seneca Wallace. Flynn was brought on board, and frankly not everyone on the team was completely sold on bringing him back, and he only started once Scott Tolzein struggled in the starting role.
So if the Packers find a way to win Sunday, they will have done so starting four different quarterbacks, including Flynn, who wasn’t even on the roster until the second week of November. The fact that they are even in the playoff race in Week 17 considering that and all the other injuries they have faced is nothing more than a miracle.
In a year where Bruce Arians, Andy Reid and Ron Rivera all are excellent Coach of the Year candidates, we owe it to Mike McCarthy to take a moment and recognize the incredible deck shuffling he’s had to do this season just to stay afloat.
Season of the replacement QB
But it also highlights the amazing round of musical chairs we’ve seen this season at quarterback around the league this season. Nick Foles will start for the Eagles, having replaced Michael Vick earlier in the year, and Kyle Orton reportedly will step in for an injured Tony Romo, barring some marvel of modern medicine allowing Romo to heal in time.
All told, if Orton starts, there will have been 14 teams to start multiple quarterbacks this season — including five that started three or more quarterbacks. Injuries have been a major story this season, with the QB ailments especially damaging.
The teams with the 10 best records in the NFL all have started the same quarterback all 16 games. Ten of the 12 teams with the worst records in the NFL have started at least two quarterbacks this season.
There is little doubt of the connection between the two things: quarterback consistency, which obviously includes good health, and winning.
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