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NFL Notes: Survival of the fittest down the stretch

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The league decided to expand the regular season to 17 games for the 2021 season. Now it might come down to which team will have enough healthy players to make it to the playoffs.

Injuries have greatly disrupted every team during this tumultuous NFL season, and some are seeing promising starts dissolve into a game of survival of the fittest.

That's probably most evident in Baltimore, where the Ravens injuries woes began before the season began when running backs J.K Dobbins and Gus Edwards were lost for the year. The Ravens have no fewer than 10 starters lost for the year on injured reserve, and on Sunday in Cleveland they lost quarterback Lamar Jackson (ankle) and star defensive lineman Calais Campbell (thigh).

Green Bay has been similarly affected by major injuries, losing defensive standouts Za'Darius Smith (back) and Jaire Alexander (shoulder) for long stretches, although both are close to returning. The Packers offensive line was missing four starters Sunday night as well. And Aaron Rodgers has been hobbled by a toe injury for the last several weeks.

In Tennessee the Titans are missing huge chunks of their offense with Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown currently on IR. Defensively they've been without Rashaan Evans (he returned against Jacksonville), David Long and Teair Tart as well as Janoris Jenkins. Some of those players, including Henry, could be back for the stretch drive.

Despite all of that adversity all three teams remain in the thick of the playoff hunt and lead their divisions. Of the three the Ravens seem least likely to stay there, both due to the significant losses and a difficult remaining schedule. The Packers and Titans are doing their best to stem the tide while waiting for reinforcements, which could make them even more dangerous once the postseason rolls around.

Every team has dealt with its share of personnel losses and the ones who deal with them the best usually succeed. But this year it seems the injury bug has bitten some more viscously than others, and in the Ravens case it would be hard to envision the team being able to overcome it.

Yet, the league is making the task of navigating a season even more difficult by extending the length of it. That doesn't figure to change, either, and it wouldn't be hard to imagine an 18th game and even another playoff team being added to the mix down the road.

Last year the move was made to add a seventh playoff team to each conference, eliminating a bye in the process. It's possible that another expansion to eight on each side would take away the lone bye, allowing for an equal playing field for all postseason teams.

But that also takes away some time to rest, and at this point watching the games each week is becoming more and more challenging as players continue to drop. It's gotten to the stage where it's less about the opponent as it is which players are actually available any given week.

It's an unfortunate development but in reality not much can be done to rectify it. It's not like there has been a significant rise in injuries due to the expanded schedule, and health has always been a major factor in the postseason. Usually the injuries are spread out throughout the league, but this year seems to be a case of some teams being hit particularly hard.

The hope for the league is for some of the walking wounded to return in time for the playoffs. That way the outcomes of the most important games won't be decided by practice squad players and other backups, as has been the case too often as of late.

End of an era

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws against the Minnesota Vikings
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws against the Minnesota Vikings

The end of a long run of success for Ben Roethlisberger certainly seems near after the Steelers Thursday night loss in Minnesota. Big Ben has reportedly let people within the organization know that this will be his last season, and with Pittsburgh clinging to life with a 6-6-1 record it would appear the end could come without one final playoff berth.

Mike Tomlin has enjoyed a long successful run in Pittsburgh, having never endured a losing season in his 14 years in the Steel City. And Roethlisberger has been a huge reason why as he wraps up his Hall of Fame career. Together they kept the Steelers relevant in the playoff picture every year, but watching things in 2021 it seems there simply isn't enough to keep it going.

Roethlisberger can still sling it at times, but just not consistently enough to keep his team in the true contender category. That lack of consistently was on full display again in the loss to the Vikings in which Pittsburgh was shut out in the first half and eventually trailed 29-0.

But as was the case during a Monday night loss to the Chargers, Big Ben mounted a furious rally that fell short. After not moving the ball at all, the Steelers caught fire and eventually had a chance to tie the game on the final play when Roethlisberger's pass to tight end Pat Freiermuth fell incomplete in the end zone.

That chance came about largely due to some curious actions by Minnesota. The Vikings led 36-20 with five minutes left and had the ball around midfield. But Kirk Cousin was intercepted and the ensuing run back created a short field which Roethlisberger quickly took advantage of. Soon the Steelers had the ball back again, only to fall short.

As the ball fell to the turf it was hard not to wonder if it would be Big Ben's last foray in the spotlight. Unless the Steelers rally down the stretch, a postseason berth does not seem to be in their future.

Numbers game

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh argues a call with an official
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh argues a call with an official

When John Harbaugh chose to go for two and the win in the closing seconds of a Week 13 loss in Pittsburgh, Tomlin mentioned the Ravens penchant for using analytics to dictate such decisions. While going for two in such a situation isn't necessarily numbers-based, Harbaugh's choice to go for two while trailing by nine Sunday in Cleveland certainly was and it cost his team a chance to tie.

Playing without Jackson and trailing 24-3, the Ravens made a game of it behind backup Tyler Huntley. Baltimore scored to pull within nine at 24-15 with less than 10 minutes left, but Harbaugh chose to go for two rather than kicking the PAT to make it a one-score game. The play failed, and the Ravens still needed two possessions to win.

Sure enough, Huntley led another scoring drive just after the two-minute warning, but instead of lining up for a potential tying two-point conversion he was forced to kick it to make it 24-22. The Ravens actually recovered the onside kick but were unable to move into field goal position to complete the comeback.

Analytics are starting to make unconventional decisions like this more common. Teams trailing by 14 often go for two after a touchdown in an effort to make it a six-point game. The idea is conversions are thought to be 50-50 propositions, so if you make the first one you then have a chance to win with another touchdown and PAT. And a failed conversion still leaves it a one-score game down 8.

But the premise of going for two down 9 makes little sense. There isn't a huge difference between being down 7 or 8, but the gap between 8 and 9 is enormous – as the Ravens saw in their latest bitter defeat.

Week 14 tidbits

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) calls out a play from the line
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) calls out a play from the line

It's been a slow process but the Chiefs are rounding back into contending form. The defense has played great for the past two months but the offense is starting to show signs of reverting to the production it had back in September. Patrick Mahomes completed 20 of 24 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns in the blowout win over the Raiders and the Chiefs piled up 48 points. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's group is taking the ball away regularly and has held six straight opponents to 17 points or less, including exactly nine in each of the last three games. The Chiefs are becoming dangerous once again. … While the battles for the wild cards in the AFC are fierce with several quality teams (Buffalo, Indy, Cincy) going at it, the same cannot be said in the NFC. Five 6-7 teams are tied for the seventh seed, including Atlanta, New Orleans and Philadelphia. Washington currently occupies the last spot, but no one would argue that any of these teams is playoff worthy. … NFL Network reported that the Titans are hopeful to get Derrick Henry back in the mix for the playoffs, or perhaps sooner. If Tennessee is able to have Henry and A.J. Brown operating at or near 100 percent in January, add the Titans to the list of contenders. The team plays with Mike Vrabel's intensity but simply doesn't currently have enough healthy talent to threaten the other quality teams. Adding Henry and Brown to that mix changes things.

Power 5

The race for the top spot in the NFC just got a little tighter, and there's a new owner of the top spot as a result.

  1. Green Bay (10-3) – The Packers have been the most consistent team on both sides of the ball, and they'll be getting some help on defense soon.
  2. Tampa Bay (10-3) – The Bucs are also starting to get some healthy bodies back on defense, and the offense looks unstoppable.
  3. Arizona (10-3) – Not going to kill the Cardinals too much for one loss but their sloppiness can't be ignored either.
  4. Patriots (9-4) – Rested and ready for the stretch drive coming off the bye as the top dogs in the AFC.
  5. L.A. Rams (9-4) – With wins over Tampa and Arizona, Matthew Stafford is making the Rams legit contenders.

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