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Snap Judgments Week 17

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Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest a fascinating and defining Week 17 Sunday and put the wraps on all but one very important game of the NFL’s 2018 regular season…..

* For most of this season, we thought we had it figured out. The Steelers were virtually a playoff lock and the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles were in serious trouble, looking all the world like they were going to suffer the galling experience of not making it back to the postseason the year after winning the title.

But the fortunes of the NFL’s two Pennsylvania franchises certainly changed dramatically late in the year, and Week 17’s dizzying events served to seal their opposite fates.

Lo and behold, the Eagles (9-7) aren’t dead after all, but the Steelers are, at least providing the Colts-Titans winner-take-all game doesn’t end in a tie Sunday night in Nashville.

Philadelphia started the day out of the six-team NFC field, but ended it ready to defend its championship, by virtue of its thorough 24-0 win at Washington, and Chicago’s 24-10 victory at Minnesota, eliminating the inconsistent Vikings.

And then, in the day’s best drama, the Steelers (9-6-1) got ever so close to mirroring the Eagles’ rise from out of the postseason to in, only to see Baltimore snatch the AFC North crown with its thrill-a-minute 26-24 home win against Cleveland. Pittsburgh beat the visiting Bengals 16-13 but couldn’t quite get the help it needed from the plucky Browns, one of its division rivals, and now in all likelihood will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

Baltimore and Philadelphia, two bird-themed teams separated by 100 miles, were the biggest winners during the first 15 games of Sunday’s action. The Ravens staved off a second consecutive Week 17 collapse on their home field to get back into the postseason for the first time since 2014, while the Eagles fought through a fourth-quarter chest injury to starting quarterback Nick Foles and completed their late-season renaissance.

Thankful to the Bears for their assistance, the No. 6 seeded Eagles will now travel to third-seeded Chicago for a first-round playoff game. The No. 4 seeded Ravens, having survived, will take on the fifth-seeded Chargers next week in Baltimore, having just upset Los Angeles in Carson last week.

What a wild turn of events for the two teams in Pennsylvania, and what a reminder once again that the NFL season is long, marathon-like test of endurance, not a sprint to the finish. The Eagles found a way to go to the playoffs after all, while the Steelers found a way to stay home.

* A remarkable thing happened in the NFL on Sunday: There were nine teams with something to play for who were facing clubs that had nothing to play for in terms of playoff implications. And all nine of them took care of business and won their games, even though things looked dicey plenty of times.

That kind of uniformity usually doesn’t happen in the league, and last year was a great example. Nine games held the same scenario in 2017’s Week 17, and only six of the teams needing the win prevailed, with the notable exceptions being Baltimore’s home loss to Cincinnati, Tampa Bay beating the visiting Saints and Seattle losing at Arizona.

But this year, the following all occurred: New England walloped the Jets, Houston took care of Jacksonville, Kansas City routed Oakland, the Chargers held on at Denver, the Rams pasted the 49ers, Seattle nipped Arizona, Philadelphia bested Washington, Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati and Baltimore out-lasted Cleveland in a game that probably took years off the life span of your average Ravens fan.

* The Ravens will be dangerous in the AFC playoffs, with their ground-oriented offense and Lamar Jackson’s dual-threat skill set. But Baltimore’s No. 1 ranked defense nearly fell victim on Sunday to the arm of the 2018 draft’s No. 1 pick, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield.

Mayfield threw for three touchdown passes and three interceptions, but he had the Ravens back on their heels for most of the game. Baltimore won six of its last seven after sinking to 4-5 in midseason, but the Browns certainly served notice that they’re a coming power in the AFC North. Mayfield is a legitimate star and set the league’s all-time single-season record of 27 touchdown passes as a rookie, and imagine what could have happened if ex-Browns coach Hue Jackson hadn’t insisted on starting Tyrod Taylor for the first three weeks of the season?

* The Steelers have no one to blame but themselves if they don’t get that Colts-Titans tie and miss the playoffs. They were a maddening team for most of the year, despite piecing together a six-game winning streak in midseason. And Pittsburgh’s losses at Denver in Week 12 and at Oakland in Week 14 were the ones that forced the Steelers into a desperate situation in Week 17.

Pittsburgh somehow lost four games in five weeks after Thanksgiving, and that’s never the recipe for making the Super Bowl tournament. Even on Sunday, the Steelers were streaky and hard to watch, struggling for most of the game to put away the last-place Bengals at Heinz Field. They simply didn’t perform well enough, often enough to deserve a place in the postseason.

* The Chiefs won resoundingly at home against Oakland, laying a 35-3 whipping on the last-place Raiders. That made Kansas City 10-0 this season against teams that didn’t make the playoffs. But the Chiefs were only 2-4 against playoff teams, losing to the Patriots, Rams, Chargers and Seahawks. It might be a statement of how weak the AFC is this year that Kansas City could earn the top seed despite having such a dismal big-game record.

The Chiefs needed overtime and a significant late rally to defeat Baltimore in Arrowhead Stadium, and knocked off the Chargers on the road way back in Week 1. That record, combined with Kansas City’s dismal playoff mark in the past 25 years, probably makes the Chiefs a very vulnerable No. 1 in the AFC. But to be fair, having Patrick Mahomes at quarterback probably negates some of Kansas City and Andy Reid past playoff struggles. Just give Mahomes the MVP. He reached 50 touchdown passes on the season in Sunday’s win, joining only Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in that exclusive club.

Not bad for a first-time starter.

* Looking ahead to next week’s first-round matchups, we’ll have Philadelphia at Chicago and Seattle at Dallas in the NFC, with the Chargers at Baltimore and the Colts/Titans winner at Houston in an all-AFC South showdown.

Of those games, I’d give Seattle the best shot to win on the road, followed by the Colts at Houston. The Bears and Ravens should be able to defend their home fields, especially given the way the Chargers offense has sputtered the past two weeks.

* I’ll give the Chargers this much, though: They’re legit road warriors. By winning in Denver Sunday, Los Angeles garnered victories in five different time zones this season

They won in London. They won in the Eastern time zone, the Central time zone, the Mountain time zone and the Pacific time zone. What better preparation for a No. 5 seed forced to go on the road in the playoffs, especially when you have no discernible home-field advantage in Carson any way.

* The Vikings came up very small against a Bears team that pushed them around at home, with Chicago playing hard despite knowing it was a long shot to get the Rams loss against the 49ers that it needed to improve its seed and earn a first-round bye.

The Vikings have to be disappointed with the Kirk Cousins $84-million signing at the moment. The ex-Washington quarterback struggled to win big games this season, and that’s what he was signed for after the Vikings made the NFC title game with Case Keenum last season.

Minnesota seemingly had bad mojo all season, with the death of well-respected and valuable offensive line coach Tony Sparano late in the preseason perhaps casting a pall over the team. Whatever the cause, it wasn’t a winning or consistent mix in Minnesota this year, and the Vikings never put together much of a sustained run at any point.

* The Rams got their job done against the 49ers, locking up the NFC’s seed with a 48-32 defeat of San Francisco at the Coliseum. But questions remain for Los Angeles, even at 13-3. The Rams lost at New Orleans, at Chicago and home against the Eagles, and it’s possible Sean McVay’s club could have playoff rematches with any of those clubs. And the L.A. defense remains not quite the strength it was expected to be this season. The Rams could be severely tested in an NFC field that doesn’t quite fear them.

* So who’s going to come out of the 12-team playoff field and reach Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta? Well if recent history is a reliable guide, the Saints-Chiefs has a great shot of being our Super Bowl matchup. The Patriots and Rams are certainly in the mix as well.

Those are, of course, the two top-seeded teams in each conference. Making the playoffs is great, but of late only the teams that earn a first-round bye reach the Super Bowl. In the five most recent seasons (2013-17), nine of the 10 Super Bowl qualifiers have been a No. 1 seed (90 percent). The only exception, the now-infamous 2016 Falcons, were a second seed and had a first-round bye. The 2016 Cowboys (13-3) were the only top seed to not maximize its advantage in the past five years.

Going back a bit further, 12 of the past 18 Super Bowl teams (67 percent) have been a No. 1 seed, dating from 2009 on. In that same span, 15 of the 18 teams (83 percent) to reach the Super Bowl had a top two seeds and got a first-round bye. And in the 28 years since the NFL expanded its playoff field to 12 teams in 1990, every Super Bowl has featured at least one team that earned a first-round bye and didn’t have to win more than two games to get there. All 28 Super Bowls fit the trend.

With the Chiefs, Patriots, Saints and Rams getting next week off, we might be down to four legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

* If the Colts make the playoffs, the AFC field will feature four new teams this season, with only Kansas City and New England being returners. The Chiefs and Patriots have won their divisions simultaneously for three years running.

But the Texans last made the playoffs in 2016, the Chargers in 2013 and the Ravens in 2014. The Colts haven’t made it since 2014, but the Titans, if they qualify, went to the postseason a year ago.

In the NFC, there are three newcomers and three holdovers. The Saints, Rams and Eagles all were in the playoffs last season. But the Bears, Cowboys and Seahawks were not. Chicago last qualified in 2010, and Dallas and Seattle in 2016.

All told there could be seven “new’’ teams in this season’s playoffs, and at least half the field would fall under that heading if Tennessee advances.

* You’ve got to like the crop of quarterbacks we’ll get to see in playoffs. Of the 12 starting passers, we’re looking at four Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks who will be under center next month.

How’s this for a lineup: New England’s Tom Brady in the AFC, and New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Philadelphia’s Nick Foles (we think) in the NFC. Foles’ injury situation bears monitoring, but the coming days will tell us how serious his chest injury might be.

And that’s not even the highlight of the quarterback contingent. In the AFC, youth would be served with MVP favorite Patrick Mahomes, Houston’s Deshaun Watson and Baltimore rookie Lamar Jackson all making their playoff debuts. If Tennessee wins an AFC wild card Sunday night against the Colts, Marcus Mariota might be able to get healthy and make back-to-back playoff trips, shooting for his second career postseason win.

And then there’s the veterans in the field, with Chargers star Philip Rivers returning to the playoffs at age 37. If Andrew Luck and the Colts make the playoffs, it’ll be his return to the postseason for the first time in four years.

In the NFC, the youngster set would be represented as well. Chicago’s second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky will make his playoffs debut, while the Rams’ Jared Goff and Cowboys’ Dak Prescott would each be making their second postseason start.

* That much-improved showing by the Patriots passing game should do plenty to ease the fears and anxieties in and around Foxboro over the coming days. A week after beating the Bills largely behind its running game, New England easily dispatched the Jets, 38-3, thanks to a much more Patriots-like performance through the air.

Tom Brady was decisive with the ball and fairly sharp, throwing a season-high four touchdown passes to four different targets, and completing 24 of 33 passes, for 250 yards, with no interceptions and a 133.8 rating. He completed passes to seven different receivers and frankly looked like himself, calm, cool and in control.

Sure, the Jets (4-12) lost nine of their last 10 games and specialize in finding ways to lose, but Brady got it done against New York and that was a comforting sight for the Patriots (11-5) and their fans as another playoff run looms. Yet again, reports of Brady and New England's demise might have been greatly exaggerated.

* The stats that truly put the Patriots’ dominance in the AFC in true perspective is their ability to consistently earn first-round byes. Not only is this the ninth consecutive season they won’t have to play in the first round, it’s the 13th bye New England has had in the 18 years since Brady became its starting quarterback in 2001. That’s 72.2 percent of the time with either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the AFC, and it rises to 76.5 percent if you disregard 2008, the season Brady missed due to knee surgery.

Pittsburgh and Denver are tied for second place when it comes to byes from 2001 on, with a mere five each, a little more than a third of New England’s total. And now comes the time of year that matters most for the Patriots. Getting next week off is like winning a playoff game already, and then who really scares you in the AFC as a potential divisional-round opponent at Gillette Stadium, where New England went an NFL-best 8-0? The road to an eighth straight AFC Championship game is wide-open for the Men of Belichick. And the sky didn't wind up falling despite a pair of two-game losing streaks by the Patriots this season.

* I appreciated everything about the way the Bills sent beloved defensive tackle Kyle Williams out in style as he enters retirement. After 13 seasons and five Pro Bowl trips as a Bill, Williams, 35, deserved every ovation and honor that came his way in Buffalo’s 42-17 rout of the visiting and mostly lifeless Dolphins (7-9). He was an exemplary Bill and always represented himself and the organization with style and class.

Williams played fullback at one point, and caught a nine-yard Josh Allen pass in the fourth quarter, coming out of the backfield. The Bills called timeout with a little more than a minute remaining to take him out of the game to rousing cheers, and he led the team out of the tunnel in the pre-game.

The Bills finished 6-10, but they won four of their last seven games and the arrow is pointing up in Buffalo with quarterback Josh Allen on the scene. In many ways, it’s easier to feel better about the Bills this offseason, with their quarterback issue settled, than it was last year, when Buffalo went 9-7 and broke its long streak of missing the playoffs.

For Miami, what a disappointing and injury-marred season that started so promisingly at 3-0. Turns out that fast getaway was a mirage, and the Dolphins face another offseason of change. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill should not be brought back, certainly not as the unquestioned starter, and the question of whether coach Adam Gase is retained with full authority over personnel issues is another matter that needs addressing almost immediately.

* Remember that narrative that says coaching disciples of Bill Belichick rarely if ever have success running their own programs? Yeah, maybe it’s time we update that a bit. Houston’s Bill O’Brien just led his Texans to an 11-5 finish despite an 0-3 start, winning the AFC South in the process. It’s the first team since the 1992 Chargers go from 0-3 to the playoffs (San Diego started 0-4), and Houston has now made the playoffs in three of the past four seasons under O’Brien.

I can’t wait to watch Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson play in his first career postseason game, especially when he throws to the game’s best receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Both players were superb in Houston’s workmanlike 20-3 dispatching of visiting Jacksonville on Sunday, putting the finishing touches on the second-best record in Texans franchise history. Along with J.J. Watt and his big comeback season, Houston has some serious star power and should be in playoff contention for the foreseeable future.

* Jacksonville on the other hand was the NFL’s biggest underachiever this season and I’m really surprised to hear Jaguars owner Shad Khan decided to opt for the status quo, bringing back coach Doug Marrone, as well as general manager David Caldwell and football czar Tom Coughlin in 2019. The Jaguars as a team seemed to tune out Marrone this season, and Jacksonville was an undisciplined mess for the last three months of the year. A 3-1 start turned into a 5-11 last-place finish, and this was a club so talented that it almost beat New England in Foxboro in the AFC title game last January.

Trying someone other than Blake Bortles at quarterback next season is mandatory — good call on that contract extension — but Bortles was far from the only problem in Jacksonville. As if that even needed to be pointed out.

* The Packers’ players have been very vocal recently about their preference for keeping Joe Philbin as their full-time head coach, but they didn’t exactly state their strongest case for him in Green Bay’s 31-0 egg-laying at home against Detroit. Suddenly the Lions (6-10) own the Packers, winning four games in a row against Green Bay and sweeping them for a second year in a row. Remember when Detroit never won in Green Bay, losing every season from 1992-2014? The Lions have now won three out of their past four games in Lambeau Field.

Aaron Rodgers missed most of the game due to getting evaluated for concussion symptoms, but Green Bay (6-9-1) already was losing and looking bad when he left. So Philbin ends up 2-2 as Mike McCarthy’s interim successor, and that’s probably not going to be enough to warrant getting the job permanently. Unless Packers CEO Mark Murphy has already decided Philbin is his man and familiarity is a priority.

The dominant road win was a nice way for Lions coach Matt Patricia to end his rookie season, and you had to love that exquisite trickeration Detroit executed, with kicker Matt Prater throwing a touchdown pass to Levine Toilolo, then converting the extra point afterward. Take that Garo Yepremian. Has that particular quinella happened in the past 60 years or so? A kicker with a touchdown pass and an extra point?

* While he certainly hasn’t done enough to warrant a second contract, I get why the Bucs reportedly are interested in Jameis Winston coming back for the fifth and final season of his rookie deal — a development that didn’t look likely at all when he was benched at midseason in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Winston has played some pretty smart and impressive ball the last six weeks or so, and his $20.9 million salary in 2019 isn’t exorbitant given today’s standards.

Tampa Bay blew an early 17-0 lead and lost 34-32 at home to the Falcons (7-9) to lock up last place in the NFC South at 5-1, but Winston did his part, throwing for four touchdown passes and leading Tampa Bay back from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit.

The Bucs have seen Winston take better care of the football and slow down the stream of turnovers he had become known for, and without any sure-thing better option being available to Tampa Bay, bringing Winston back makes some sense. He’s 24, and this year’s late-season progress makes him seem still salvageable. Now that the Bucs did the expected Sunday and fired head coach Dirk Koetter, they might be hiring someone who wants to try his hand at developing Winston’s game.

I wouldn’t have said it at midseason, but Winston probably is the Bucs’ best choice at this point heading into the offseason.

* Teddy Bridgewater didn’t exactly boost his marketability as someone’s potential starting quarterback in 2019 in New Orleans’ lackluster 33-14 loss at home to Carolina. Bridgewater finished with just 118 yards passing and 14 completions in making his first start in almost three years, since the 2015 Vikings lost their playoff opener at home against Seattle. It wasn’t the easiest of situations to step in to, with so much rust on his game, but he didn’t maximize his opportunity to say the least.

With the No. 1 seed in the NFC already salted away, the Saints rested key starters like Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara against Carolina, but the Panthers (7-9) had lost seven games in a row entering play. New Orleans (13-3) isn’t sweating the loss, but it means the Saints dropped their Week 1 opener at home to a division rival (the Bucs) and their Week 17 finale at home to a division rival (the Panthers). In between New Orleans went 13-1, losing only at Dallas in Week 13.

The Saints have to be considered the biggest favorite in the league to at least reach the Super Bowl, given they are facing the prospect of two home games in the playoffs and a dome game in Atlanta on Feb. 3. The Saints in the Sean Payton era are 5-0 at home in the playoffs, and won’t it be rich for Falcons fans to see their arch-rivals take over Atlanta’s team complex and stadium for Super Bowl week?

* I know the Cowboys rested some key starters, running back Ezekiel Elliott included, but the last time I saw a playoff-bound team play that hard in a meaningless Week 17 game was when the Giants almost ended the Patriots perfect season in 2007. Dallas rallied to beat the Giants 36-35 in MetLife Stadium on Sunday, and I loved how the 10-6 NFC East-winning Cowboys played with a sense of urgency despite not being able to better their No. 4 seed in the playoffs.

Dallas is at least entering the postseason on a high note. The Cowboys have won seven of eight games after being 3-5 at midseason, and as ESPN noted, Dallas hasn’t won a playoff game following a loss in its final regular season game since 1996. So maybe momentum is real in the Cowboys’ case.

The Giants (5-11) really wanted to get a sixth win and end the year with a positive vibe, but Dallas wouldn’t relent and wouldn’t take the easy way out. Quarterback Dak Prescott threw for 387 yards and a career-best four touchdown passes, three to little known reserve tight end Blake Jarwin. Prescott played the entire way and has his game in top form as the Cowboys face a tough first-round playoff matchup with Seattle.

Ridiculously Cool Football Card of the Week

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Two days after the 60th anniversary of the fabled 1958 NFL title game between the Colts and Giants — dubbed rather hyperbolically “The Greatest Game Ever Played’’ — let’s see if Colts quarterback Andrew Luck can go all Johnny Unitas on the Titans tonight in Nashville and return his club to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Luck’s comeback to elite form this season has been a very under-appreciated story line this year, but if he delivers against Tennessee on NBC’s Sunday Night Football it will cap a truly remarkable rally, given Indianapolis (9-6) was once 1-5 this year and seemingly destined for a last-place finish in the AFC South.

In terms of significance, Luck’s performance won’t rate alongside the work that Baltimore’s Unitas turned in at Yankee Stadium against the New York Giants six decades ago, when he basically invented modern football’s two-minute drill and won the NFL’s first overtime championship game. But it would make the Cinderella Colts the most unlikely playoff qualifier of this year’s postseason, and put the guys who wear the horseshoes on their helmets back into the Super Bowl tournament. Here’s one of my favorite Unitas cards, his 1971 Topps, with his classic crew-cut and cagey smile on full display for the then-defending Super Bowl champion Colts.

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