This chaotic NFL season augurs the most wide-open playoffs in years

<span>Photograph: Jay Biggerstaff/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Jay Biggerstaff/USA Today Sports

If the NFL was hoping to keep more teams in the playoff hunt longer by expanding the regular season from 17 weeks to 18, well, mission accomplished. Week 16’s slate of games is nearly completed, yet much remains unsettled, particularly in the still wide-open AFC. If there’s one team that’s taken advantage of their situation, it would be the Kansas City Chiefs, who are currently the only team in the conference guaranteed a playoff spot.

Related: NFL roundup: Josh Allen and Bills dump Patriots to wrest command of AFC East

It feels like ages ago, but it was only late October when the preseason favorites looked to be in serious trouble. After a demoralizing 27-3 loss to the Tennessee Titans, the Chiefs had stumbled from the gate with a perplexing 3-4 record. Since then, however, they have rattled off eight straight victories and look to be in great shape to make their third straight Super Bowl.

While previous Chiefs teams were famous for outscoring opponents, this Kansas City team has found a more sustainable model of success, as their Patrick Mahomes-driven offense is now balanced by what has become one of the league’s best defenses. It’s to the point, where the Chiefs easily handled the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday despite being without all-world tight end Travis Kelce, who was on the team’s Covid-19 list.

With Sunday’s 36-10 victory over the Steelers, Kansas City became the first team in the AFC to clinch their division, partly thanks to the New England Patriots’ own reversal of fortune over in the East. On top of that, they are one game ahead of the Tennessee Titans for the conference’s top seed.

Coincidentally enough, the Chiefs’ Super Bowl LV opponents also clinched their division on Sunday. The 11-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won the NFC South for the first time since 2007. Even before the season began, it felt like a rematch between these two squads was potentially in the cards and it hasn’t looked more possible than it does now.

However, given how relatively competitive the NFC has been this year, the Chiefs have a clearer path to a championship than the Bucs. Tampa Bay’s record looks sterling, but they are missing key elements of their offense: running back Leonard Fournette and wide receiver Mike Evans both suffered hamstring strains while receiver Chris Godwin is out for the foreseeable future thanks to a torn ACL. On top of this. linebacker Shaq Barrett strained his MCL during Sunday’s win over the Carolina Panthers.

Rhamondre Stevenson
Rhamondre Stevenson of the New England Patriots carries the ball as Jordan Poyer of the Buffalo Bills defends in the third quarter of the Sunday’s game. Photograph: Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Meanwhile, their competition looms. Despite his recent heel turn, reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers hasn’t forgotten how to play football: he has helped lead the 12-3 Green Bay Packers to the best record in the league. The Los Angeles Rams and the Dallas Cowboys – both of whom also clinched a playoff berth on Sunday – have identical 11-4 records, and LA holds a tiebreaker over Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, right now, the Chiefs are the only AFC team that knows its season will last beyond Week 18.

These are, however, only regular-season records. While rewards like a bye week and home-field advantage provide huge dividends come the playoffs, they don’t guarantee anything in a single-game elimination format. Look at the defending world champions, who came into last postseason as a wild-card team and still went on to finagle a victory over extremely talented opponents.

This brings us back to the chaos of the 2021 NFL season. At no point has a team looked invulnerable and – with the obvious exception of the season’s bottom-feeders (the Detroit Lions and the Jacksonville Jaguars) – every team has seemed capable of putting together a winning streak. It hasn’t helped that teams have had to piece together pandemic-ravaged active rosters as they continually lose players to Covid-19 and the surrounding protocols.

When the postseason comes, it’s not set in stone that previous results will dictate future success or failure. Right now, the Chiefs looked primed to make their third straight Super Bowl appearance, but if there’s one lesson to take away from this year it’s not to read too much into the current NFL landscape.

Video of the week

Maybe things would be better for the Jets if they just played the Jacksonville Jaguars every game. Not only did the much-maligned Zach Wilson go off on a 54-yard touchdown run, but the Jaguars allowed a 102-yard kickoff return to Braxton Berrios.

In any case, it was a rare entertaining win for the Jets, who beat Jacksonville 26-21, which meant it was a day-after-Christmas miracle for the waitress who received Jets tickets from Wilson as a tip.

MVP of the week

Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals. His 299 passing yards were the most a quarterback picked up in the first half of an NFL game all season. He ended throwing for 525 total yards and four touchdowns, without a single interception. What can you say? The dude really loves playing against the Baltimore Ravens.

OK, it didn’t hurt Burrow or his receivers that the Ravens’ defense has been decimated by illness and injuries, but that’s not enough to explain the sophomore signal-caller’s utter dominance. Baltimore’s injuries weren’t just limited to the defensive end of the game, they were without both of its quarterbacks in Lamar Jackson and Taylor Huntley. So, the very well-traveled Josh Johnson ended up starting for Baltimore on Sunday and while he threw two touchdowns himself, it obviously wasn’t enough for the Ravens, who were beaten 41-21.

Stat of the week

1940. That was the last time the Pittsburgh Steelers went five straight games without a first-half touchdown. While the Steelers won two of those five games, they are still in great danger of dropping out of the postseason mix after their blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. At this rate, we might see the end of Ben Roethlisberger’s career sooner than we anticipated.

Quote of the week

“Football aside, sorry, but I’m doing a story about New Year’s resolutions and I was just wondering if you had any you wanted to share with your fans and our readers?” – a reporter to New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick following his team’s 33-21 loss to the Buffalo Bills

Infamously, Belichick’s professional demeanor is such that when he uncharacteristically issued an apology for his treatment of the media last week, it was a massive local news story. If there ever was not a time to throw up a softball, human interest question to him, it was not after his team’s most unfortunate loss of the regular season. The 9-6 Patriots have now lost their last two games while the Bills have won their last two and – just like that – things are all tied up on the top of the AFC East. If Buffalo win out, they will win the division that New England could have clinched.

Given that he just witnessed Josh Allen absolutely slice through the vaunted Patriots defense, it’s understandable that the coach replied “not right now”. When it comes to football, the entire team’s resolution should be not to fall out of the wild-card standings. In any case, all of this is good news for the 7-7 Miami Dolphins, whose playoff hopes remain alive heading into Monday night’s game against the New Orleans Saints.

Elsewhere around the league

• The NFL attempted to crowd into the NBA’s gimmick by giving us a pair of Christmas Day games. In the first, the Green Bay Packers faced the Cleveland Browns. Cleveland QB Baker Mayfield threw three interceptions in the first half, each one of which eventually resulted in an Aaron Rodgers touchdown. The Browns made a solid comeback attempt but the game essentially ended on – what else? – a fourth Mayfield interception. The Packers won 24-22 while the Browns are forced to spend another week speculating about Mayfield’s near and long-term future with the franchise.

Related: Rodgers breaks Favre’s career TD mark as Packers hold off Browns fightback

• On Saturday’s second game, the Arizona Cardinals continued their inexplicable late-season slide, falling to the Indianapolis Colts 22-16. In the game, running back Jonathan Taylor failed to record a touchdown but he continued his own MVP campaign by putting together a 108-yard rushing performance in front of a depleted offensive line.

• The Detroit Lions kept their losing ways alive with a 20-16 loss to the Atlanta Falcons that dropped their record to 2-12-1. Comically, that one tie continues to be their undoing in their quest for the number one pick in next year’s draft. The Jacksonville Jaguars’ previously discussed loss to the New York Jets dropped their record to 2-13, the league’s overall worst.

• The quarterback cavalcade continues in Carolina as Sam Darnold has returned to replace fan favorite Cam Newton, who once again struggled after making an impressive season debut. Instead of picking one, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule decided instead to rotate the pair depending on the in-game situation. As noted earlier, this time around it resulted in a 32-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Rhule’s sticking with his platoon strategy, however.

“I believe it’s 1000% working,” a defiant Rhule said after the game, “I just know nobody can see it and I apologize. As I tell our team all the time, it took Jay Z seven years.” Jay Z was unavailable for comment.

• With their 30-23 win over the Minnesota Vikings, the 11-4 Los Angeles Rams secured a playoff berth despite three interceptions from quarterback Matthew Stafford. As Baker Mayfield could tell you, it’s the fourth INT that really puts a nail in your team’s coffin.