There was a time when the AFC playoffs looked wide open.
Those were the days.
The New England Patriots might be looking at the extended weather forecast for Houston in early February because the Patriots are peaking, while some other AFC contenders have taken hits.
The Oakland Raiders lost quarterback Derek Carr to a broken leg, and they’re not going anywhere with Matt McGloin. The Miami Dolphins were already playing without starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The Houston Texans don’t have an injury at quarterback, but we all saw their new starter Tom Savage struggle on Saturday night.
There are only two real threats. One is the Kansas City Chiefs, who have recently lost at home to the Tennessee Titans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Chiefs’ “A” game is really good, but we’ve seen their “D-minus” game a couple times lately too. It’s tough to see them winning at New England.
Then we have the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have won six in a row and will be everyone’s edgy pick to win the AFC. There’s a chance New England never has to see Pittsburgh. The Steelers, who can’t get a first-round bye, might have to win two games before they even come to Foxborough. Also, the Patriots have won seven of nine in that series, dating back to Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season.
It might not matter, for the Steelers or anyone else. Somehow, the Patriots have been unbeatable since losing Rob Gronkowski.
Since Nov. 13, the last time Gronkowski caught a pass this season, the Patriots are 6-0. They put him on injured reserve and won the next four games by 16, 7, 13 and 38 points.
The offense hasn’t been explosive, but it has been good enough. The big difference recently is on defense. The Patriots haven’t given up more than 20 first downs in a game since that Nov. 13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. They’ve forced 12 turnovers in their past five games. Winning 41-3 on Saturday against a New York Jets team that has checked out doesn’t mean they’re unbeatable, but they haven’t shown many cracks since losing to Seattle.
The Patriots have lost just two games all season. One came when third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett, a rookie, was playing with a right thumb injury so bad he’d need surgery less than a week later. In the other loss, the Patriots were stopped at the 1-yard line at the end of a tight game against Seattle. The Patriots have played 11 games with Brady, are 10-1 and nine of the wins have been by a touchdown or more.
If it looked like the Patriots were vulnerable without Gronkowski, they have emphatically answered that concern. They have a great quarterback (and remember, half of the rest of the AFC playoff field will probably be quarterbacked by Moore, McGloin and Savage), a defense that is playing well lately and the best coach in football. They can clinch a No. 1 seed on Sunday, and if they don’t get it, the only other possible top seed would be McGloin’s Raiders.
If you hate the Patriots, it might be a long postseason. The Patriots are storming into the playoffs.
Here are the power rankings after Week 16 of the NFL season:
32. Cleveland Browns (1-14, Last week: 32)
Good for the Browns. Nobody will remember them a few years from now. Had they gone 0-16, they’d be talked about 40 years from now. Ask the 1976 Buccaneers.
31. San Francisco 49ers (2-13, LW: 31)
The 2016 49ers: 2-0 vs. the Rams, 0-13 against everyone else.
30. New York Jets (4-11, LW: 29)
I like Todd Bowles, but it is alarming how blatantly this team has quit on him. You’d think they’d want to at least play hard to save Bowles’ job, if it’s in danger.
29. Los Angeles Rams (4-11, LW: 28)
In six games, Jared Goff has 969 yards, five touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 61.7 (!) rating. Against a 49ers pass defense that is not good (tied for fifth-worst 7.7 yards per pass allowed before Saturday) Goff had 90 yards. Goff struggling as a rookie doesn’t mean he’s a bust. And the Rams have plenty of problems on offense beside him. But you want to see something out of the first pick of the draft.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-12, LW: 30)
Somewhere, Gus Bradley was watching the Jaguars beat the Titans while Jacksonville’s quarterback threw for 325 yards, and thought, “Thanks a lot Blake Bortles, where was that when I needed it?”
27. Chicago Bears (3-12, LW: 27)
Matt Barkley’s five-interception game might be a blessing in disguise. It avoids the Bears having those “maybe Barkley can be our long-term starter!” thoughts creep in their minds this offseason.
26. San Diego Chargers (5-10, LW: 25)
Do the Chargers do the whole, “This might be our last game in San Diego so we’re going to get really emotional about it” thing a second straight year?
25. Cincinnati Bengals (5-9-1, LW: 24)
Lost in the whole drama over A.J. Green being held out, reportedly by Bengals ownership, is this important part: It was the correct call to sit Green. No reason to get him injured again in this lost season.
24. Philadelphia Eagles (6-9, LW: 26)
Malcolm Jenkins was a great free-agent signing by the Eagles. Hey, remember when the Saints decided to let Jenkins walk so they could give Jairus Byrd more money?
23. Minnesota Vikings (7-8, LW: 21)
I don’t know whether the Vikings’ defensive backs defied coaches orders or, as they all said Monday when the story was blowing up, it was all a big miscommunication. But if the players decided to change Mike Zimmer’s game plan on their own – and again, we don’t know exactly what happened and might never know – I’m not sure how that relationship could be repaired.
22. Tennessee Titans (8-7, LW: 15)
Marcus Mariota’s recovery from a broken leg will take four to five months. Hopefully that’s accurate, and he won’t miss any offseason practice time. If the Titans can add some receivers, and Mariota makes the same kind of jump he made from college to his rookie season, and then again from his rookie season to his second NFL season, he’ll be a star by the end of next year.
21. Arizona Cardinals (6-8-1, LW: 23)
Chandler Jones had 1.5 sacks in the Cardinals’ upset win at Seattle. He’ll be an interesting case this offseason. It’s hard for the Cardinals to trade a second-round pick for one year of Jones getting 9.5 sacks in a losing season. But has he earned a massive Von Miller/Justin Houston-type deal? It seems like we could be headed toward a franchise-tag situation.
20. Carolina Panthers (6-9, LW: 22)
On Cam Newton, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said: “He’s getting older and he’s going to be a different style player. We know that much.’’ It’ll be an interesting transition, if that happens. Newton hasn’t thrown the ball well this season, especially compared to his MVP season of 2015. His offensive line isn’t very good and he has been playing injured, which factors into that. Part of what has made Newton a special quarterback is that defenses have to account for him in the running game. If that part of his game starts to get phased out, what kind of player will he be in the second chapter of his career?
19. Indianapolis Colts (7-8, LW: 19)
Frank Gore needs 36 yards to reach 1,000 this season. According to Stampede Blue, the 33-year-old would be the oldest 1,000-yard rusher since John Riggins in 1984. Maybe Gore will decide to retire, but at this point there’s no reason to believe he doesn’t have another productive year left.
18. Buffalo Bills (7-8, LW: 17)
It seems like if Bills ownership wants to push Rex Ryan out, the final nudge could be that Buffalo had 10 men on the field for a 57-yard run by Jay Ajayi in overtime. That run practically won the Dolphins the game. Ryan said “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen,” about having only 10 men on the field, then took the blame. ”It’s my responsibility. I’ve got broad shoulders. I’ll own up to it and I’ll take it, every bit of it, but I know what happened.” Ryan shouldn’t be fired after two seasons, but that’s a bad look.
17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-7, LW: 14)
The Buccaneers’ playoff hopes are all but done – they need a lot of things to go their way in Week 17 including a Redskins-Giants tie – and it’s disappointing. That five-game winning streak late in the season should show everyone what is possible in 2017.
16. New Orleans Saints (7-8, LW: 20)
Drew Brees leads the NFL in passing by 228 yards over Kirk Cousins, who is in second place. He already holds the NFL record with six passing titles. He needs just 142 yards to reach 5,000 this season. He already has four of the eight 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history and is about to make it five of nine. Despite all that, Brees is still underrated historically.
15. Houston Texans (9-6, LW: 18)
The good vibes from Tom Savage’s game against the Jaguars wore off quickly. Savage could continue to improve, but I have no idea what the Texans will do at quarterback this offseason.
14. Washington Redskins (8-6-1, LW: 16)
It’s funny that people are still debating if Washington should or will pay Kirk Cousins. If Washington doesn’t pay Cousins, who needs 370 yards to reach 5,000 this season, it would be unprecedented in NFL history. Go find another example of a good quarterback in his prime hitting free agency, unless the quarterback’s original team already had a backup plan in place (like Drew Brees and Philip Rivers in San Diego or Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck in Indianapolis). It never happens, and Cousins won’t be the first.
13. Denver Broncos (8-7, LW: 13)
After a five-year run that included five division titles, two AFC championships and a Super Bowl title, it was surprising to see the Broncos go down so quietly in a blowout loss on Sunday night as they were eliminated from the playoffs. We’ll see how Denver retools this offseason, but no matter what happens down the road, this was a great stretch.
12. Detroit Lions (9-6, LW: 12)
The Cowboys didn’t even need to win and they ended up blasting the Lions. I don’t want to say that Detroit can’t win a home game against the Packers in Week 17, but I won’t be picking it to happen.
11. Baltimore Ravens (8-7, LW: 10)
The Ravens fought hard at Pittsburgh, and give them credit for battling back to take the lead with a little more than a minute to go. But it will gnaw at them all offseason that they had chances to beat the Steelers and take over control of the AFC North, and the defense that has been very good all season couldn’t get the job done.
10. Oakland Raiders (12-3, LW: 3)
They had to move back a bit in these rankings to reflect Derek Carr’s injury. It’s one of the more devastating injuries in recent memory when you factor in the Raiders’ long playoff drought. Maybe Matt McGloin is Jeff Hostetler, but I doubt it. I’m sorry, Raiders fans.
9. Miami Dolphins (10-5, LW: 11)
That was a clutch win at Buffalo, but it has to be concerning that the defense allowed the Bills to set a franchise record with 589 yards. But the Dolphins are in the playoffs before Week 17 even kicks off. That already makes the entire season a success.
8. New York Giants (10-5, LW: 8)
Since Week 1, the only true road game the Giants have won was against the Browns. Seems relevant, as everyone is talking themselves into the Giants making the Super Bowl based on things that happened in 2007 and 2011.
7. Seattle Seahawks (9-5-1, LW: 4)
Thomas Rawls’ importance is crystal clear now. He had 8 yards on eight carries Sunday, leaving early with a shoulder injury. It didn’t matter that Russell Wilson had 350 yards and four touchdowns, or that Doug Baldwin had 171 yards. Seattle isn’t going anywhere without a running game, and it has no running game if Rawls is hurt or ineffective.
6. Green Bay Packers (9-6, LW: 9)
Aaron Rodgers is the key to Green Bay’s resurgence and he’s going to win MVP if the Packers win in Week 17, but Jordy Nelson has been incredible too. He leads the NFL with 14 touchdowns, and has 100 yards in three of four games.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5, LW: 7)
The Steelers probably had enough time to spike the ball if Antonio Brown didn’t stretch over the goal line. But if they didn’t, that play is all we’d be talking about all week. “Risky” doesn’t begin to cover it. It worked though.
4. Atlanta Falcons (10-5, LW: 6)
This whole “Falcons are going to get a bye” thing is going to sneak up on a lot of people this week.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4, LW: 5)
The Derek Carr injury changed things for a few teams, but maybe most for the Chiefs. Can the Raiders win with Matt McGloin at Denver on Sunday? If not, the door is wide open for Kansas City to get the division title and a No. 2 seed.
2. New England Patriots (13-2, LW: 2)
Not many people have a story like Matt Lengel. He was signed off Cincinnati’s practice squad in the middle of this season. He has one career target in the NFL … and one career touchdown catch from Tom Brady. His first NFL catch was an 18-yard touchdown on Saturday against the Jets. That’s pretty cool.
1. Dallas Cowboys (13-2, LW: 1)
We need to start taking defensive end David Irving seriously as a possible difference maker in the playoffs. Irving, who had an NFC defensive player of the week performance against Green Bay earlier this season, has three sacks in two games. He could make a play or two that could swing a game next month.
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