Aside from the Chiefs, who clinched a playoff spot with a win on Sunday, none of the NFL’s contenders did much to help their case last week.
It all started in Denver, where Peyton Manning and the Broncos came back down to earth for the second time in a month, falling to the Chargers and failing to clinch the AFC West and a first-round bye. Instead, Kansas City is hot on their trail — tied atop the division — and could overtake the bye if Denver falters even slightly.
With a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Broncos already in tow, the Patriots had a chance to overtake the top spot in the AFC. But a re-energized Dolphins team sucked the late-game magic right out of Tom Brady and left New England’s coveted first-round bye vulnerable. In similar fashion, the Bengals punted away — pun very much intended — their shot at an inside track on the bye, allowing the Steelers to manhandle them in Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, over in the NFC, the Eagles blew their chance to win the NFC East outright, and the Cowboys just straight blew. The Lions were left in disbelief as Justin Tucker kicked them 61 yards down into third place in the NFC North. The Saints couldn’t keep their winning ways alive either, getting blindsided by the underrated Rams and allowing the Panthers to gear up for a winner-take-all divisional matchup in Carolina this weekend.
There are plenty of games with playoff implications on the line heading into week 16, making for what should be one of the most exciting weekends of the year.
Before the weekend of fun gets underway, though, let’s dive into some leftover thoughts from the week that was.
**Editor’s Note: Each week, I’ll break down 10 thoughts from around the NFL in the NESN.com “First and 10.” That being said, here are 10 more thoughts from around the NFL after another week of football.
1. Flacco > Brady – If Tom Brady is Peyton Manning’s foil in head-to-head meetings, then Joe Flacco is the same for Brady. In the six Patriots-Ravens games, including the playoffs, since 2008, Flacco has outplayed Brady on the whole. Brady has thrown just six touchdown passes with nine interceptions in the series, meanwhile Flacco has been damn good, hitting on 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions in those games.
The Patriots and Ravens have split the series 3-3 since Flacco’s rookie season, although Baltimore has won each of the last two. If quarterback play is any indication of Sunday’s outcome, then the Ravens would seem to have the advantage, which is definitely an unusual reality for the Patriots.
2. Cutler is the right QB for the Bears – In the first half on Sunday, Marc Trestman looked like he had made a grave mistake. Jay Cutler threw two interceptions and seemed to be making the same sort of mistakes that have cost the Bears too many times in the past. The second half produced a very different Cutler, though, and he proved Trestman’s decision to bench Josh McCown was confirmed.
Cutler completed nine of 12 in the second half, including two of his three touchdown passes, but he was even better on third down. With a reliance on Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, Cutler connected on 11 of his 12 third down passes, totaling 151 yards and two touchdowns against the Browns. Those numbers are encouraging, especially for a Bears team with so little margin for error as they make a hopeful push toward the playoffs.
3. Learn the name — Justin Tucker has made a few headlines this week after kicking a 61-yard field goal to seal the Ravens’ win on Monday night, but he should have been well known even before that epic kick. Tucker, who’s in his second year out of Texas, has been one of the most accurate kickers in the NFL over the last two seasons, nailing 65 of his 70 field goal attempts, including 10 of 11 from 50-plus. He’s also made 35 of his 37 attempts this season, leading the NFL with the most made field goals and tied for the lead in makes from 50-plus. That sort of production deserves not only a Pro-Bowl berth but also recognition as arguably the NFL’s best kicker.
4. Charles is the NFL’s best dual-threat back — Jamaal Charles produced his lowest rushing total (20 yards) of the season on Sunday, but he more than made up for it in the passing game. Charles, who normally handles the rock around 20 times out of the backfield, got just eight carries on Sunday, instead being featured as a receiver, catching a season-high eight passes for 195 yards and four touchdowns — the first running back in 50 years with four receiving scores in a game. Charles’ effort wasn’t just a fantasy owner’s dream, though, it also proved that the Chiefs’ tailback is the best dual-threat back in football.
When considering that title, many might look to Darren Sproles, Danny Woodhead or even Shane Vereen. However, those players are receivers first and runners second. Charles, on the other hand, is a feature back capable of handling the full load out of the backfield while also adept at catching passes. His ability to excel in both aspects separates him from the rest of the dual-threat backs and puts him in a category all his own.
5. Fauria is a red-zone machine – Joseph Fauria went undrafted in April, only clinging on with the Lions after an impressive training camp. Now, it seem ludicrous that he wasn’t given more opportunities out of college. Fauria isn’t an every-down tight end, at least not yet, but he has become one of the league’s best red-zone targets. In fact, Fauria has only caught 12 passes this season but seven of them have gone for touchdowns. His 6-foot-7 frame makes him an almost impossible cover from teams around the league, and it should see him make a long career out of it.
6. Rivers is good in December, but Brady is better – The Chargers are still in the playoff picture, executing an excellent defensive strategy against Peyton Manning on Thursday to stay alive, but they’ll need a lot of help in order to actually keep playing come January. Good thing they’ve got Philip Rivers.
Bolo tie or not, Rivers has been very successful late in seasons, boasting the second-best December winning percentage of any active quarterback since 2006. Only Tom Brady (26-4) has been better than Rivers (28-6) in the final month of the season over the last seven seasons. So, if San Diego truly expects to make the playoffs, they couldn’t really ask for anyone to give them a better shot.
7. Coach of the Year is anyone’s game — The MVP race seems like it’s been settled since Week 1, and most of the other end-of-year awards have at least narrowed themselves to just a few worthy candidates — all except for Coach of the Year. There are at least seven coaches still alive in the discussion – Bruce Arians, Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, John Fox, Sean Payton, Andy Reid and Ron Rivera — but none of them have really separated from the rest of the pack. So, the final two weeks will certainly decide the race, with finishes from Arians, Reid and Rivera likely most critical to their candidacies. It’s still anyone’s game, but, whatever the decision, it should bring plenty of gripes around the league.
8. Cardinals are in the wrong conference – Bruce Arians has started something of a revolution in Arizona, but he may be in the worst playoff situation of any team above .500. The Cardinals are among the top-10 teams in the NFL this season, boasting an efficient offense and staunch defense, yet it seems like a long shot for them to make the postseason.
Arizona (9-5) would need to win their final two games, which won’t be easy as they travel to Seattle and welcome the 49ers to town, and get some help from others in order to sneak in. The 49ers, Panthers and Saints currently have a one-game edge on the Cards, and they each hold the conference tiebreaker over Arizona, too. So, the Cardinals may be the odd team out of the postseason this year. Too bad they’re not in the AFC.
9. Don’t crown the Seahawks or Broncos just yet – The Seahawks and Broncos are likely to finish the season as this year’s No. 1 seeds, but that doesn’t mean either team will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy come February 2.
In fact, the Saints (2010) and Patriots (2004) are the only two No. 1 seeds from either conference in the last decade to win a Super Bowl. Not to mention that the last three Super Bowl winners were the No. 6 (Packers), No. 4 (Giants) and No. 4 (Ravens) seeds respectively, and none of them had secured a playoff spot by Week 16 either, as the Packers were 9-5, the Giants 7-7 and the Ravens 8-6 entering Week 16 in the last three years. So, don’t count out any of these fringe playoff teams just yet.
10. More teams should tank – I know this isn’t a popular opinion, and I’m usually not a proponent for it, but, it’s tanking season, and some NFL teams should just bite the bullet. 12 teams have already been eliminated from playoff contention and seven others could join them this weekend. So, while playing for pride can be important for team’s trying to build for the future — just look at the Panthers — losing could position them better in the draft. The Texans (2-12) currently hold the No. 1 pick and Washington (3-11) is at No. 2, but six teams are in the mix for the No. 3 pick and losing might be their best option at drafting Jadeveon Clowney or another top-rated player. Of the six, the Falcons and Vikings are the best currently suited to return to the playoffs next season, so they would seem with the most to gain from tanking now to win later.
It’s certainly not popular, or even right, but it’s also the smartest play for some teams at this point.