It’s Week 15 in the NFL, and the Alphabet is back. Ready to guide you through a forest of playoff possibilities.
Here we go —
It’s Week 15 in the NFL, and the Alphabet is back. Ready to guide you through a forest of playoff possibilities.
Here we go —
A1: Thaa Broncos lose. Thaaaa-ah-ah-ah Broncos lose!
Not sure when John Sterling started broadcasting Broncos games, but sometimes it’s better not to ask questions. Either way, when I sat down to write this preview yesterday afternoon, I wasn’t sure where to go with the top story. Maybe Ravens/Lions on Monday night? Maybe. RGIII gets benched? Eh. Cutler comes back? Eh. Rodgers doesn’t? Eh.
But then Thursday night happened. Denver slipped and fell in the cold. At home. On national TV. Against the ghost of Norv Turner and the San Diego Chargers. And now the AFC playoff picture is forever changed. OK, maybe it’s more like a middle school boyfriend/girlfriend forever. This forever could disappear in 72 hours. But the all-important top spot in the AFC is up for grabs, and the race to claim it is your Alphabet A1.
BALANCE OF POWER: After the Chargers win, the AFC balance of power hopped a red eye from Denver to Boston (although it probably flew into Providence) where the Patriots are now proud controllers of their playoff destiny. Win their last three games, and the road to the Super Bowl goes through Foxborough.
Man, one week they lose Gronk and stare death in the eye. The next week, they’re in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed. Funny how that works, right? Wrong. There’s nothing funny about Gronk. But it’s impossible to understate the opportunity at hand for New England.
Sunday’s line opened with the Patriots as three and a half point favorites. I’m not sure if that was before the Gronkowski news was official, but most of the subsequent money came in on the Dolphins and the game is now a Pick ‘em. That’s usually a bad sign for the road team.
Either way, this is a good test for the new-look Pats offense. First (and file this under BREAKING NEWS), because road games are always tough. Especially within the division. Second, because the Dolphins defense is pretty good. They rank ninth in the NFL in points allowed (21.2). They have the fifth most sacks (40) and the fifth most interceptions (16) in the league.
On the bright side, Miami ranks towards the bottom of the league in forced fumbles (9) and fumble recoveries (6). That should help Stevan Ridley sleep a little better this week. However, if he somehow still loses a fumble on Sunday, it will most likely result in him sleeping away the rest of his season while tied to a furnace deep inside the bowels of Bill Belichick’s boat.
CONTROVERSY BE DAMNED: The Dolphins are still alive. They’ve survived the scandal. They’ve won three of their last four since that pathetic Monday night in Tampa. Suddenly, they’re far more reminiscent of the team that came out like gangbusters in September than the one that was recently gasping for air under layers and layers of Incognito blubber.
At 7-6, the Dolphins are tied with the Ravens for the sixth and final AFC playoff spot. And while Baltimore holds the head-to-head tiebreak, Miami has the easier schedule. They’ll follow up Sunday’s game against the Pats with a trip to Buffalo and then host the Jets in the regular season finale. On the other hand, the Ravens are in Detroit on Monday night, then host the Pats next week before traveling to Cincinnati in Week 17. That’s three games against three division leaders, and that’s a tough break for the defending champs.
DON’T LOOK NOW: But the Bengals (9-4) still have an outside shot at stealing the top seed in the AFC.
For starters, they need the Pats to lose at least one more time. And that’s not out of the questions considering the two challenging road games that lie ahead for New England.
They also need the Broncos to lose at least one more time. And that’s not out of the question considering Denver just lost at home to the Chargers. (Then again, Peyton and friends finish with games in Houston and Oakland, where the weather is warm and the competition is minimal.)
The Bengals also need to win out, and that mission begins on Sunday night at Heinz Field against the Steelers (5-8).
Cincinnati is a two-point favorite in this one, and here’s a crazy stat: It marks the first time the Bengals have been favored in Pittsburgh since 1989. Back in the days of Boomer Esiason and the great Ickey Woods.
Cincy’s 9-14 on the road against the Steelers since, and honestly, that’s much better than I expected. But more honestly, history means very little in terms of what will happen on Sunday. And anyway, while they can still dream of somehow landing the No. 1 seed, the Bengals are more focused on reality.
That is, with a win against the Steelers, they’ll clinch a playoff berth. That would be three straight years in the postseason, and that would be a first in Bengals history.
END OF DAYS: Washington (3-10) has been such an ugly and depressing team this year. I hate to even mention them so high on the page. But it’s a big story, so let’s make this quick and get it over with.
The Skins are in Atlanta on Sunday. Robert Griffin III won’t be on the field. That’s because he’s been benched for the rest of the year by a coach who doesn’t want to be there and who’s main motivation in life is to spite Washington’s maniac owner.
I actually don’t know if that last part’s true. There’s certainly evidence to support the decision to sit RGIII. And if Kirk Cousins can perform well over these last three games, maybe the Skins can get a little more for him on the trade market. But the bottom line is that this needs to end. Daniel Snyder needs to fire Mike Shanahan. He should have done it last week.
FACE REALITY: That means you, Aaron Rodgers. As much as you’re dying to get back on the field . . . As much as it will absolutely kill you to stand on the sidelines this Sunday against Dallas and watch Matt Flynn go to battle with Tony Romo . . . As much as you might look at the standings, see that your Packers are only a half game back in the NFC North and know for sure that you can push them back over the top . . . I don’t care if you drafted yourself in fantasy, are currently in the playoffs, have RGIII and Josh McCown as your only other options and NEED those points . . .
Stop. Let it go. It’s not worth it. The Packers and the league are better suited for the long haul without you spending the next few weeks killing yourself in the name of a playoff and, in the best case scenario, getting blown by the Niners or the Seahawks.
GRINCH: December continues to be cruel to Tony Romo. With last Monday’s loss to the Bears, he’s now 11-16 for his career in the most important month of the NFL’s regular season, and moving forward, he shouldn’t expect any help from his defense.
He hasn’t gotten any all year. The Cowboys D has given up more yards than any team in the league. They rank 26th in points allowed. They’re one of the worst defenses in recent NFL history, and it’s scary to think how good they might make Matt Flynn look on Sunday. They might earn him another ridiculous contract. But you know? It shouldn’t matter.
The Packers defense isn’t that great either. And they’ll be playing on the road. Tony Romo has the talent to get it done. He certainly has the weapons. The Dallas D is the Dallas D and it’s on Romo to overcome that. That’s what great quarterbacks do.
HAMSTRUNG: There’s a wacky trend developing in Dallas this season. Well, other than the annual wackiness that takes place in Dallas every season. In this case, the Cowboys have a hamstring issue. Through 14 weeks, they’ve had 10 different players hit with a hamstring related. This week, starting linebacker Bruce Carter, starting cornerback Morris Claiborne and special teams, uh, specialist Dwayne Harris all miss practiced with not so creamy hamstrings and are questionable for the Packers game.
INTERIM COACH: That’s Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who’s back in the big chair this week as Houston plays their first game since the firing of Gary Kubiak.
At this point, it’s almost impossible for things to get worse for the Texans. And even if it did, the franchise will be too numb to notice. That’s what happens after 11 straight losses. That said, don’t expect thing to get better.
The Texans (2-11) are in Indianapolis this week. At the start of the season, this game was supposed to be huge. A pivotal match-up in the battle for AFC South supremacy. But in real life, the battle is over. The Colts (8-5) clinched last week. And on Sunday, all they’re really worried about is staying healthy, and positioning themselves for the playoffs.
JURY’S STILL OUT: On Andrew Luck’s sophomore campaign. It’s hard to say that he’s regressed, because his numbers are better than they were last year. Then again, they aren’t much better. Same goes for his team. Then again (again), there are so many other factors to consider. In 2013, his offensive line has been a mess. The Colts running has been worse. And he’s played the last six weeks without Reggie Wayne.
But he does have them back in the playoffs. And then there’s this impressive fact: Almost two years in, 29 games to be exact, Luck has never lost back-to-back games in the NFL.
He lost to the Bengals last week. That’s more bad news for the Texans this week.
KEEPING IT SIMPLE: You’ve got to give Marc Trestman credit for that. Regardless of how well Josh McCown played in place of injured Jay Cutler, Trestman never let even a hint of QB controversy enter into his locker room.
Of course, it existed in the media, because that’s what the media does, but inside the walls, there was never a moment when he let that Cutler was in danger of losing his job. So, when Cutler was cleared to play this week, it was easy. McCown goes back to the bench. And Cutler will be under center on Sunday when the Bears (7-6) take the field in Cleveland (4-9).
LOYALTY TO A FAULT: Even though he managed the issue gracefully, that doesn’t mean that Trestman made the right decision. And I don’t think he did.
The Bears are 3-2 with McCown at QB. He’s thrown 13 touchdowns and only one interception. He averaging 258 passing yards a game and boasts a 109.8 rating. Just in general, when he’s out there, the Bears just have a different way about them. More energy. A stronger identity. He may be a career back-up, but McCown’s proven to be a great leader.
Meanwhile, Chicago is 4-4 in games started by Cutler. He’s thrown 13 touchdowns as well, but has eight interceptions compared to McCown’s one. He’s averaging 238 yards a game with a rating of 88.4. In other words, he’s been Jay Cutler. You know Jay Cutler. You know exactly what you’re going to get. There’s a reason he’s only made two playoff starts in seven years.
And at this stage of the season, with the Bears tied with the Lions for first place in the NFC North, I think McCown is the better option.
Now, if Trestman will just start returning my calls . . .
MONDAY NIGHT SHOWDOWN: The best interconference game of the week is the last game of the week. Ravens at Lions. Monday Night Football. Both teams would make the playoffs if the season ended today, but neither can feel all that great about their current position.
Lions are 7-6, tied for first in the NFC North and have the tiebreaker over the Bears. However, in losing three of their last four, they’ve played themselves out of wild card contention and won’t have to slip up much to lose their already slim division advantage.
NO ROOM FOR ERROR: We already talked about the Ravens. At 7-6, and thanks to the tiebreaker, they currently own the AFC’s sixth seed over Miami. But their schedule is brutal. If they drop this game on Monday, they’ll need back-to-back wins over New England and Cincinnati to avoid becoming the fourth Super Bowl champion in eight years to miss the playoffs the following season.
The Lions are favored by five and a half. And that makes sense considering the Ravens have only one win away from home this year and the fact that Detroit’s best player/robot is out for blood.
OLD MAN MEGATRON: I’m sure you’ve heard the quote by now. Earlier this week, Ravens safety Matt Elam was asked about Monday’s match-up with Calvin Johnson and said: “He's pretty old, so I don't know how physical he'll be. He's a big guy, but he's older. I guess when they get older they're not going to be as physical, you know what I'm saying? We're going to have to be physical, make him uncomfortable.”
I’m uncomfortable just thinking about what Megatron has planned.
“It's all good,” he said in response. “I'll show him what that old man's strength about, though.”
PERFECT OPPORTUNITY: The Seahawks (11-2) have already clinched a playoff spot. With a victory on the road against the Giants (5-8) on Sunday, combined with a San Francisco loss in Tampa, the Seahawks will clinch the NFC West and a first round bye. With a victory over the Giants, combined with a Niners loss and a Saints loss in St. Louis, Seattle will clinch homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
There’s a lot to digest there, but here’s something that’s more important than all of that. It’s Week 15 and the Seahawks are playing a game at the same stadium that will host this year’s Super Bowl. What an opportunity. After all, when/if they do clinch homefield, they’ll be the hands on favorite to come out of the NFC. If they do, this week’s experience — just being there, in the locker room, on the field, becoming familiar with the surroundings and the weather, will be invaluable. Just something to keep in mind.
Seattle’s a seven-point favorite against sad Eli and the Giants
QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Can the Bears stop Josh Gordon?
He’s currently the most unstoppable force in the league with 31 catches, 649 yards and four touchdown catches in his last three games. But the Bears secondary has been pretty good at stopping unstoppable receivers. They held Calvin Johnson to four catches and 44 yards in Week 4, and then six catches for 83 yards in Week 9. Sure, Megatron still had three touchdowns, but they contained him. And last week, Chicago straight shut down Dez Bryant (two catches, 12 yards).
If they can do the same to Gordon, the rest will be easy.
RIGHTING THE SHIP: It was shaky there for a while. The SS Andy Reid had dropped three battles in a row and it looked like the Chiefs incredible 9-0 start was on the verge of sinking into another lost Kansas City season.
But they got back on track last week in Washington, destroying the Skins in the snow. And now, a win this Sunday in Oakland will clinch a playoff berth for Kansas City (10-3). Their first since 2010 and only their third in the last 10 years.
It would be fitting for the rival Raiders to stand in the way of that accomplishment, but the Raiders aren’t standing in the way of anything these days. They’ve lost five of last six games heading into Sunday and take the field as four and half-point home underdogs.
STREEEEAKKING!: The Jacksonville Jaguars have won three straight games. I repeat. This is not a test. The Jacksonville Jaguars have won three straight games. In fact, they’re tied for the longest active winning streak in the AFC. They’ve won four of five games overall.
And you know the craziest thing of all? They might not lose again this season!
On Sunday, Jacksonville hosts the Bills, who are 4-9 overall, losers of five of their last six, 1-5 on the road this year and also the Bills. In Week 16, they host the Titans, who they already beat this year in Tennessee. In Week 17, Jacksonville is in Indianapolis, and the playoff-bound Colts will be so checked out that they might as well start Adam Vinatieri at QB.
I don’t know about you, but I’m fully rooting for six-game Jaguars winning streak. Would be one of the best stories of the year.
TWIN BILL: On their own, San Francisco at Tampa and Arizona at Tennessee are blah games. Tampa’s season has been over for months. The Titans are still mathematically alive but aren’t playing for the postseason. Meanwhile, both the Niners and Cardinals are in the playoff race but both need help to get in. And that’s where the paths of these two games cross.
A 49ers win plus a Cardinals loss (and a Dallas loss), and San Francisco is in the playoffs.
That also mean that the Cardinals are out.
UPSET OF THE WEEK: The Bears are favored by a point and a half against the Browns. I already expressed my issues with Jay Cutler starting at QB. Meanwhile, Jason Campbell is playing well for the Browns. The whole Cleveland team will be fired up after last week’s loss to New England, and this Sunday marks their final home game of the year. They won’t give it up easy. In fact, they’re going to win.
Final Score: Cleveland 26, Chicago 24
VENGEFUL: You know the Panthers are feeling better after the beating they took last week in New Orleans, and they’ll look to take it on the Jets at home this Sunday. The Panthers don’t necessarily clinch a playoff berth with a win, but a victory pretty much guarantees they’ll eventually get in there.
As for the Jets, well, they still have Geno Smith at QB. Not a good look on the road against the league’s top-ranked D.
WIN AND THEY’RE IN: It’s been a crazy four weeks for Saints. They hosted the 49ers in Week 11. they visited the depressing falcons in week 12. Then they traveled to Seattle in Week 13 before hosting the surging Panthers in Week 14.
New Orleans went 3-1 over the difficult stretch and earned the opportunity that lies before them this Sunday. Beat the Rams (5-8), and make the playoffs.
X-FACTOR: At his best, there’s no one more dominant than Adrian Peterson. As a result, when Peterson is listed as a game-time decision, he is also listed as the X-Factor.
This week, Peterson’s Vikings host the Eagles. Minnesota’s season is toast, but the Eagles (8-5) are a game up on the Cowboys with three to play, and desperately want to avoid having to go to Dallas in Week 17 with the entire season on the line.
If Peterson’s out, Philly should be OK. Their offense has lived up to the Chip Kelly name, and should but even better on Minnesota’s turf. Meanwhile, the Eagles defense stinks, but the Vikings offense (sans AP) is much, much worse.
If Peterson plays, all bets are off. That’s why he’s the X-Factor.
YESTERDAY’S NEWS: We already discussed the Broncos loss. So on that note, keep an eye on the Chargers.
Last night’s win not only knocked Denver off its perch but it also kept San Diego alive. They’re now 7-7 and finish the season with two home games. The first, against the Raiders, who’ve won a single road game all year (at Houston) and only won one game total since Halloween. In Week 17, San Diego hosts the Chiefs, who they already beat once, and who’ll likely have already clinched their own playoff spot and take the field in preservation mode.
That said, San Diego would lose the head-to-head tiebreak against Miami, and most likely against the Ravens. In other words, they need help. They need to win their last two games, and pray that the other two teams go 1-2 in theirs. But with two weeks left, the Chargers have a chance.
ZOOM: I’m out.
Have yourself a fine Sunday.
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine