We’re getting into the stretch run of the NFL season folks, and this is where things get really fun in the National Football League. Crappy weather starts to give games an old school feel that brings a certain level of nostalgia to the metaphorical table. ESPN has their Playoff Machine up so it’s easier to comprehend what the stakes are for every team in every game. Players are jockeying for MVP positioning just like teams that won’t even sniff the Playoffs are positioning for more desirable draft slots. What a time to be alive!
Home Teams in ALL CAPS
ARIZONA over Minnesota
A tough stretch for the Vikings, who have gone Green Bay, Atlanta, Seattle and this Arizona before finishing up with Chicago, the New York football Giants and then at Green Bay to finish up the season. You’ll have a difficult time finding a more challenging seven-game stretch than this one Minnesota is in the middle of. Arizona should be able to stack the box and cover Minnesota’s receivers on the outside with relative ease (just like Seattle did), leaving the Vikes offense incapable of moving the chains.
Arizona doesn’t exactly have a cupcake schedule to end the season either. After this weeks Thursday night clash with Minnesota they’re playing in Philly (and based on what we’ve seen from the Eagles, this could either be Arizona’s biggest victory or largest defeat this year), then they’ve got back to back home games against Green Bay and Seattle, who will both be playing for playoff positioning or their playoff life. It wouldn’t surprise me if Arizona ran the table though. It’s just a steady group of dudes who are collectively really freaking good at professional football. Just remember, over the last two full seasons and ten games this year, the Arizona Cardinals are 30-14. In that same stretch, New England, Denver, Seattle, Cincinnati and Carolina are the only other teams that have won 30 games.
Washington over CHICAGO
I’m just out of things to say about my Chicago Bears. Truthfully, I’d rather the Bears just be awful year to year for the rest of my life than masquerade as a team that is talented and near contention, yet continuously finds ways to blow winnable games and underperform time and time again just when you’re ready to start believing in them. I really believed that the Bears would beat the 49ers last week and move within a game of the last Wild Card spot in the NFC. Instead they let the Niners linger, Robbie Gould missed his third field goal in his twenty-seven year career (both of those previous numbers are approximate figures) and then the Bears gave up a game-winning touchdown pass to Blaine Gabbert, just five minutes after allowing a game-tying touchdown run by the same crumby quarterback. But hey, there’s always next year, right?
San Francisco over CLEVELAND
On the bright side, there’s an upcoming NBA matchup between a team from the Bay Area and a team from Cleveland that offers much more intrigue than the 49ers and Browns do. Also, fuck Blaine Gabbert.
TAMPA BAY over New Orleans
Jameis Winston‘s 4th quarter 20 yard scramble will be the play that people point to as his Rookie of the Year moment (and for good reason) but ever since his opening Sunday debacle against Tennessee he’s been as impressive as we could have rightfully expected that he would be. He’s deceptively mobile, increasingly careful with the ball, and the thing I like most about him is his ability to shake off a bad throw and come back with a huge play on the next down. Not every quarterback has that in their psyche, and very few rookies do. I was a skeptic and he proved me wrong. He’s your Rookie of the Year, and improbably, he’s already the second best quarterback in the NFC South. By the way, it pains me to say this considering Brees has been a constant at the top of this division for a long time and I’ve been a Matt Ryan backer since he was throwing up on the sideline at Boston College.
NEW YORK JETS over Tennessee
Buffalo over PHILADELPHIA
KANSAS CITY over San Diego
Pittsburgh over CINCINNATI
Over the last four days I’ve spent way too much time playing around with ESPN’s Playoff Machine, and I’ve come to the conclusion that my projected winners of these four game these are the four teams that I’m taking seriously for the AFC Wild Card spots (sorry to Oakland, Miami, Houston and Indy). Kansas City really shouldn’t lose another game this season, which means they’d be entering the Playoffs having won ten straight games, which would be the most ridiculous thing about the Playoffs this year other than the fact that there could be a six win NFC East team representing the division in the postseason.
It’s impossible for the Jets AND the Bills to win out since they play each other Week 17, but if either one of them one out, they could still be the odd-man-out if both Pittsburgh and Kansas City win out as well. The Steelers play three of their final four games on the road, and their lone home game is against the Denver Broncos, who are in contention for a 1st Round bye. The Jets have tough ones against New England (also playing for a bye) and the still-in-contention Buffalo Bills yet to come, while the Bills face three NFC East opponents (Philly, Washington and home for Dallas) before closing out the season with the Jets in Buffalo.
There are a ton of variables in play here, and as long as this race remains close I plan on breaking it down the next few weeks, but here’s what I’ve come up with … Kansas City is in, and if Pittsburgh wins this week at Cincinnati then it all but locks up their spot.
JACKSONVILLE over Indianapolis
My favorite playoff machine nugget that I’ve stumbled across might be Jacksonville’s ability to win the AFC South still, and it doesn’t even require Houston OR Indianapolis losing out for it to happen. That’s remarkable if you ask me. Speaking of remarkable: remember last week when I said that since I was leaving T.J. Yeldon, Charcandrick West, Travis Benjamin and Allen Hurns on my bench in the first week of Fantasy Football playoffs, that meant one of them would have a huge game? Well, had I played T.J. Yeldon (18 points) instead of Darren McFadden (7 points), I would be in the semi-finals instead of the consolation bracket. Let’s look at this another way … if Antonio Brown didn’t take a meaningless 4th quarter punt return to the house, I would have won even if I kept McFadden in the line-up. Just my luck. Somehow, over the last seven years I’ve managed to win three fantasy football titles and lose in brutal, groin-kick fashion the other four years. There’s no in between for me.
Seattle over BALTIMORE
Seattle’s offense has been ahead of the defense all season, but the D finally looked like it had gained ground last week with a one-sided victory in Minnesota, against a Vikings team that employees the best running back in football. The only touchdown Seattle gave up was a meaningless kickoff return, and if there is a better way for a defensive unit to continue to trend upward than playing against a possibly concussed Matt Schaub (or Bryn Renner, Jeremy’s younger brother) and an offense with no playmakers other than Happy Gilmore’s cousin Crockett, then I’m anxiously waiting for someone to clue me in as to what it might be. With all due respect to the Carolina Panthers and their fans, I can’t help but feel like we’re about three weeks away from Seattle being declared the NFC favorite.
CAROLINA over Atlanta
So we have the team with the longest active winning streak in the league (Carolina) facing a divisional rival who has the second-longest active losing streak in the league (Atlanta) … not too much suspense with the outcome of this one, right? There seems to be some suspense as to whether Cam Newton should be the MVP of the league though, and I just don’t get that. I’m not a Cam fan, nor am I a hater, so my opinion is 100 percent based on what I’ve seen this year, and this year I’ve seen Cam Newton truly lead a team that probably shouldn’t be 12-0 to a 12-0 record. For the record, the rest of the ballot should include Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, Adrian Peterson and J.J. Watt, in that order.
ST. LOUIS over Detroit
GREEN BAY over Dallas
The Rodgers to Rodgers Hail Mary last Thursday night felt like one of those rare moments that alters the fate of both teams involved in the game for the immediate and somewhat-distant future. For the Lions, it felt like a play that put a screeching halt to an already disappointing season that was being kept alive by the smallest glimmer of hope you could even comprehend. The Lions were mathematically still alive for a Playoff spot and surging, and in the game Jim Nantz and Phil Simms talked about how the Lions believed they could win all of their remaining games on the schedule.
The Packers had lost four of their last five games, and were shutout in the first half in Detroit. It wasn’t just that the Packers had dropped four of five … they looked fatally flawed in those losses. Their defense was penetrable and their offense was below average, a statement that nobody had ever been able to make since Aaron Rodgers took over as starting quarterback in Green Bay.
And just as it looked like the Lions were on the verge of winning their fifth straight game at the expense of the Packers, ready to drop their fifth game of the season, Aaron Rodgers heaved a football a mile into the air and 70 yards or so down the field. The throw was incredible, and the catch, in and of itself, was equally as impressive. In a way it reminded me of the Christian Laettner shot against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. The pass to Laettner had to be perfect, and the shot (or in the Packers case, the catch) had to be made, but in both instances the defense was atrocious enough that it actually took away from how spectacular the moment actually could have been.
Regardless, this was a play that emphatically ended the Lions season and breathed new life into Green Bay’s. If the Packers win out and the Lions lose out, we know why.
DENVER over Oakland
So let me pose the rhetorical question to you readers: what do you do if you’re Denver … bring Peyton Manning back if he’s healthy, or ride it out with (Paul Heyman voice) Brrrrrock Osweiler. You’ve gotta go with Brock Osweiler at this point, right? This wasn’t a case where a team kindly pushes a veteran quarterback out of the starting job before it goes terribly wrong, as was the case in Indy with Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning. This was Manning playing as effectively as we could have expected that Archie Manning could at this point in his life, before getting benched for a young dude who has absolutely positively elevated Denver’s ceiling this season. So yeah, the right answer to this question is you stick with Osweiler, you run the ball, you play defense, and you trust that Osweiler won’t crush you like Manning had been doing to the Broncos all season.
New England over HOUSTON
New York Giants over MIAMI
I won’t back down from it just yet, but let’s just say in years past I’ve felt a lot better about my mid-season Super Bowl pick than I do about my Patriots/Giants prediction this year.
Last Week: 11-5