We’re going to get some weird AFC wild-card teams for the first week of the playoffs.
The craziest part of the Buffalo Bills’ weird quarterback decision last week was that this is a great year to grab a wild-card spot in the AFC. It’s not like the competition is fierce. The Bills had a 54-24 implosion at the Los Angeles Chargers to fall to 5-5, every criticism of their hot start not being for real looks to be spot on, and they still have a good chance to get the sixth seed in the AFC. The Bills acted like they were raising the white flag by starting rookie Nathan Peterman, but the rest of the AFC won’t let them. The 6-4 Tennessee Titans, currently the fifth seed, are far from a sure thing either.
There is a motley crew of 5-5 and 4-6 teams that should have woken up Monday feeling like they’ve still got a shot at a wild-card spot. It might not be the prettiest group you’ve seen, but one of them will be on that early afternoon Saturday game on wild-card weekend. Heck, even the 3-7 Denver Broncos shouldn’t feel totally dead when they look at the flawed teams ahead of them. If you want to get really crazy, USA Today broke down the 46 results that need to happen for the 0-10 Browns to make the playoffs (no, the Browns are not eliminated yet). It’s an insane race.
Let’s look through how this might shake out.
PLEASE, SOMEONE STOP THESE TEAMS FROM GETTING IN
If somehow, someway, the Houston Texans or Miami Dolphins make the playoffs and ruin one of those wild-card games on opening weekend, I’m going to be angry at the rest of the NFL.
Technically the Dolphins and Texans are alive at 4-6, but these are two ugly teams. The Texans got to four wins mostly because of Deshaun Watson, who is out for the season, and I still have no idea how the Dolphins got four wins. I don’t blame the Texans as much (though, punting Week 1 with the truly inexcusable decision to start Tom Savage over Watson looks even worse when you realize they’d be tied for the sixth seed with one more win). Houston just had too many major injuries. The Dolphins, on the other hand, just aren’t a good football team. Both teams are really hard to watch. Let’s just hope they fade away.
THEY REALLY HAVE A CHANCE?
When you see the New York Jets and Cincinnati Bengals on this list, you’ll do a double take. But they’re both 4-6 and not dead. The Jets seem to be fading, but they’ve already won more games than most people predicted of them. The Bengals have been a disappointment but here they are, having around the race heading into Thanksgiving.
I think the Bengals have a better shot to make it than the Jets, but I don’t anticipate either making it. The Bengals are a bit intriguing though. There’s good talent on the roster and the schedule has some winnable games.
ANY OTHER YEAR, THEIR FATAL FLAWS WOULD LEAVE THEM FOR DEAD
The Baltimore Ravens have an unwatchable offense. The Oakland Raiders’ defense is really bad. The Bills now have this weird quarterback story, a bad run defense after trading Marcell Dareus and all the good fortune from their turnover-filled 5-2 start seems to have run out.
Yet, at least these teams bring something to the table. The Ravens play good defense. The Raiders, on occasion, can be very explosive on offense. The Bills aren’t great on either side of the ball, but they were good enough to get to 5-2 and 5-5 isn’t bad in this weird group of contenders. If a run is coming from any of these teams I’d probably bet on the Ravens first and the Bills last, but the last wild-card team could come to this group.
OK, I’M INTERESTED
I think the Los Angeles Chargers are clearly the most talented team in this group, and the one I like the most to make a run. It sounds crazy after they started 0-4, but I trust them more than any other team in the mix. Even though they’re 4-6 and have very little margin for error. The Tennessee Titans are right there too, though I’m not sure why we haven’t seen them play better (their 6-4 record is thanks to a run of close wins against bad teams).
The Chargers have their own issues, of course. Sure, we can bemoan that they have lost three games they could/should have won, but that’s in the Chargers’ DNA now: They blow games. They shouldn’t have needed a last-second field goal against the Broncos or Dolphins anyway. Los Angeles has no home-field advantage as they play in front of small crowds that are mostly rooting for the opponent, which isn’t ideal, but there are moments where you can squint hard and see a team that can make a run. Their demolition of the Bills was impressive. If you give them a couple field goals early and prevent a circus in the final two minutes against the Jaguars that cost them a game two weeks ago, they’re 7-3 and thinking about the AFC West title and not a wild card. I think there’s a run coming from them. Their last six games: At a demoralized Cowboys team, vs. Cleveland, vs. Washington, at Kansas City, at the Jets, vs. Oakland. The scariest game is against a Chiefs team that has lost four of five.
The Titans have their issues, but also an easy schedule. Some folks think the Titans are going to win the division, and I don’t see that happening (check out the Jaguars’ remaining schedule sometime), but Tennessee being 6-4 in this group with a manageable schedule probably makes them a good bet. So give me the Titans and a Chargers team that lost its first four games to get the wild cards.
But in this weird group of contenders, can you really trust any of them?
Here are the power rankings following Week 11 of the NFL season:
32. Cleveland Browns (0-10, Last week: 32)
Hue Jackson said he’ll stick with DeShone Kizer at quarterback the rest of the season, which is clearly the right move for the big picture of the franchise. It probably increases the chances of the Browns going 0-16, however.
31. San Francisco 49ers (1-9, LW: 30)
The next four games feature teams with bad-to-mediocre defenses: Seahawks (the injuries make them a lot less intimidating), Bears, Texans and Titans. If the 49ers are that worried about Jimmy Garoppolo being rushed — I find this whole situation really strange — they’ll have four decent spots to get him work in the upcoming weeks.
30. New York Giants (2-8, LW: 31)
Lost in the talk about how bad the Giants offense is, especially without Odell Beckham, is how bad the defense has been. It was weather-aided, but the Giants held the Chiefs to nine points Sunday. Where has that been all season?
29. Indianapolis Colts (3-7, LW: 27)
It will be interesting to see what happens with Frank Gore next offseason. He will be a free agent. He’ll also turn 35 next May and has a career-low 3.5 yards per carry. Although Gore hasn’t said if he has any plans to retire, it’s at least possible we’re watching the last few games of a great career.
28. Houston Texans (4-6, LW: 29)
Rough injury for rookie D’Onta Foreman, tearing his Achilles tendon on a touchdown. He was having a nice game before that. Now the running game is back on Lamar Miller, who has been steady but unspectacular.
27. Miami Dolphins (4-6, LW: 25)
I wonder if Jay Cutler knew a few months ago what he knows now, if he had turned down the $10 million from the Dolphins and just stayed retired. His wife’s Instagram comment was telling. Having injuries pile up on a terrible team with constant criticism of your play can’t be fun.
26. Chicago Bears (3-7, LW: 26)
All you have to do is watch Mitch Trubisky and you can see the promise. He is capable of some marvelous throws, and while sometimes he looks for a running opportunity too quickly, his running ability is a big plus. He seems like Carson Wentz last season, putting up mediocre stats with a terrible supporting cast, but if you look at the film you see the future is bright.
25. Denver Broncos (3-7, LW: 23)
I’d assume John Elway regrets his “soft” comment. Maybe he said it in the heat of the moment without thinking or he thought it would fire his players up, but it looks bad. Now he’s got a locker room of players he insulted. Firing Mike McCoy as offensive coordinator is just window dressing. The roster just isn’t good enough. That’s on Elway.
24. Green Bay Packers (5-5, LW: 20)
Ask yourself this: How bad did the Bears have to play two weeks ago to lose to this Packers team? The Packers have been absolutely deplorable in every other game with Brett Hundley at quarterback. The worst thing that can happen to some backup quarterbacks comes when they are forced to play. A backup quarterback can play a long time in the NFL with that mystery of how good they can be, based off some preseason games. Hundley has cost himself a ton of money these past few weeks just by playing.
23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-6, LW: 28)
The schedule was a big reason for this two-game winning streak but let’s be honest: It’s not a good look at all for Jameis Winston that the Buccaneers are 2-0 with Ryan Fitzpatrick starting and 2-6 with Winston this season.
22. Arizona Cardinals (4-6, LW: 22)
The best news of last week might have been that Larry Fitzgerald was going to sign a one-year contract extension. He refused to confirm that meant he was coming back for another season, There aren’t many players in the NFL who are more enjoyable to watch.
21. New York Jets (4-6, LW: 21)
The Jets have been plucky, but here are their final six opponents: Panthers, Chiefs, Broncos, Saints, Chargers, Patriots. That could get ugly.
20. Cincinnati Bengals (4-6, LW: 24)
The Bengals had 190 yards and 12 first downs on Sunday. They had a nice win, and there’s at least some hope for a little bit of improvement from what has been a disappointing offense, but they still have a long way to go even after a victory.
19. Oakland Raiders (4-6, LW: 17)
You have to wonder if coach Jack Del Rio is totally safe. This has been a rather shocking step back. And even though the rest of the AFC wild-card candidates are flailing around too, the Raiders’ defense is so bad it’s hard to see them rallying down the stretch. At very least, you have to assume Del Rio will be told this offseason his entire defensive staff needs to go.
18. Buffalo Bills (5-5, LW: 16)
There haven’t been many coaching decisions in recent memory worse than Sean McDermott switching from Tyrod Taylor to Nathan Peterman. He keeps saying the move was done with the future in mind. That makes it even worse, because that means McDermott believes a fifth-round rookie who just threw five picks in a half could be his quarterback of the future. This is going to stick with him for a while.
17. Baltimore Ravens (5-5, LW: 18)
Breshad Perriman, a former first-round pick, had seven catches for 54 yards this season and was a healthy scratch on Sunday. It’s not like players haven’t bloomed later in their careers after bad starts, but there are zero signs that Perriman is an NFL receiver.
16. Tennessee Titans (6-4, LW: 15)
If you’ve watched the Titans this season, you know how unimpressive they’ve been. Last Thursday’s blowout loss at Pittsburgh was really no surprise. The Titans have an easy schedule and already beat the Jaguars, but the Jaguars have an easier schedule and a much better team. I don’t know that the Week 17 Titans-Jaguars game will even mean anything.
15. Washington Redskins (4-6, LW: 14)
What a crushing loss. Blowing a 15-point lead with less than six minutes left is really hard to do, and the Redskins also lost running back Chris Thompson to a leg injury. At least Samaje Perine had a breakthrough game. Now that the season is practically over, the focus turns to Kirk Cousins and what happens with his impending free agency.
14. Los Angeles Chargers (4-6, LW: 19)
The story of Sunday’s game was the Nathan Peterman debacle, but the Chargers were very good on both sides of the ball. I think if you started the season over, the Chargers might win the AFC West.
13. Dallas Cowboys (5-5, LW: 11)
What struck me most about Sunday night’s blowout loss to the Eagles is how little fight there was in the second half. I don’t put all of the blame on Dak Prescott, but it’s a bit shocking how far ahead Carson Wentz is in that race.
12. Detroit Lions (6-4, LW: 13)
Things would get really interesting if the Lions beat the Vikings on Thanksgiving. Don’t forget, the Lions already won once at Minnesota, so a win Thursday would pull them within one game in the standings and they’d have the tiebreaker. Pretty fun holiday game.
11. Seattle Seahawks (6-4, LW: 7)
I still think the Seahawks can get to the playoffs despite their injuries. But it’s hard to figure out how they make a run.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-3, LW: 12)
It sounds a bit crazy but when you look at how easy the Jaguars’ remaining schedule is, a first-round bye isn’t out of the question. Perhaps we still have a few Blake Bortles blowups to come and that ruins Jacksonville’s shot at a No. 2 seed, but it’s been a while since that happened. I think some people still haven’t yet realized how well the Jaguars are set up right now.
9. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4, LW: 6)
The Chiefs are lucky the AFC West has been far worse than anyone expected. I still think there’s a good team here, but it’s a lot harder to take that stance after they’ve just lost to a Giants team that looked like it didn’t want to play football anymore this season.
8. Atlanta Falcons (6-4, LW: 10)
Two consecutive impressive wins, first over Dallas and then at Seattle. It’s a little worrisome to buy completely in, because it ignores they weren’t great the first half of the season, but there are reasons to believe this is the start of somthing good.
7. Carolina Panthers (7-3, LW: 9)
Weird stat: The Panthers are minus-7 in turnover margin. No other team with a winning record is worse than minus-3. A big issue is Carolina has grabbed only five interceptions. If you assume that a very good defense is eventually going to start getting more turnovers, it means a 7-3 team can get a lot better moving forward.
6. Los Angeles Rams (7-3, LW: 4)
It wasn’t ideal to lose to a team that the Rams will be battling with for seeding in the NFC, but the Vikings are good too. What’s most troubling might be the shoulder injury for Robert Woods. He’s been a big part of this season’s offensive resurgence.
5. Minnesota Vikings (8-2, LW: 8)
How many teams have a better receiver tandem than the Vikings? Stefon Diggs is very good and Adam Thielen is on pace for 1,466 yards. There’s a reason the Vikings offense has been just fine despite Sam Bradford being out and Teddy Bridgewater still working his way back.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-2, LW: 5)
Le’Veon Bell is getting a lot of volume but he hasn’t had better than four yards per carry in four straight games, and four of the last five. He averaged at least 4.7 yards per carry each of the last three seasons, and is getting just 3.8 this season. That’s not the best news before he can hit free agency again, and it might not get better with right tackle Marcus Gilbert suspended four games over a PED violation
3. New Orleans Saints (8-2, LW: 3)
You knew that even though the Saints weren’t asking Drew Brees to do everything anymore, when they needed him he would be there. Brees was phenomenal during the Saints’ comeback win. It’s why he’s one of the greatest ever. When the NFC playoffs start, there won’t be a quarterback in that field you’ll trust more than Brees.
2. New England Patriots (8-2, LW: 2)
The Raiders aren’t exactly playing great on offense, but the Patriots made them look bad on Sunday. It’s amazing how the Patriots could look like the worst defense in the NFL for the first month or so of the season, and before Thanksgiving it looks like every single issue has been solved. Bill Belichick gets a lot of credit but so should defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who might be getting closer to a head-coaching job.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (9-1, LW: 1)
The second half on Sunday night might be the most impressive half of football we’ll see this season. The Eagles outscored the Cowboys 30-0 after halftime on the road to virtually clinch the NFC East title. With the division all but clinched, the attention turns to getting home-field advantage through the playoffs. Given how well they’re playing in every area, if they can get the No. 1 seed it’s going to be very hard for an opponent to come into Philly and win in January.
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