The new Tom Brady isn’t afraid to share his feelings. And Brady has made it clear that he hates that the NFL expanded the regular season by one game to 17.
“I think it’s pointless,” Brady said a couple of weeks ago on his “Let’s Go!” podcast. “I think 16 is plenty. And, again, you’re eight games into the year and you’re not halfway through, so that’s kind of a little frustrating aspect. I’ve been pretty vocal about NFL issues over the last couple of years and some of the things that are done that I don’t necessarily think are in the best interests of the game.”
With all due respect to Brady, the 2021 season is already disproving his point. Not only did the additional game add several million to the salary cap (which may not be as big of a deal to Brady but certainly is to the majority of players), but the 17th game, in addition to adding a seventh playoff team per conference, has added excitement and kept more fans engaged across the country.
It’s Week 11, just before Thanksgiving, and 27 of the NFL’s 32 teams are still in the playoff mix. There are more spots available, and more time for a team to figure things out and go on a run.
With eight weeks left in the regular season, let’s break down the playoff races in each conference:
Contenders (5): Tennessee (8-2), Buffalo (6-3), Baltimore (6-3), New England (7-4), Kansas City (6-4).
With all due respect to the Steelers and Chargers, these look like the teams that could realistically reach the Super Bowl. They are well coached and have playoff-tested quarterbacks (other than Mac Jones, of course).
The Titans started slowly at 2-2, including a loss to the Jets, but now sit in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed (more on that below). The Bills have been shaky in recent weeks, and their schedule gets much tougher (Colts, Saints, Buccaneers, and two games with the Patriots), but they have the NFL’s best point differential (plus-145).
The Ravens are coming off a terrible loss at Miami, but Lamar Jackson is having an MVP-type season, and John Harbaugh has a .632 career win percentage in December.
The Patriots are now steamrolling teams after a 2-4 start, and are percentage points behind the Bills in the AFC East. And you never should bet against Bill Belichick, even with a rookie quarterback. But they have feasted on young coaches and quarterbacks and have yet to win a close game in the fourth quarter. The real season begins now, with the Titans coming to town next Sunday and two games with the Bills in December.
The Chiefs have been a mess all season and could slide back to the pack with a loss Sunday against the Cowboys. But they have too much talent, experience, and success to count out.
In the mix (7): Pittsburgh (5-3-1), Los Angeles Chargers (5-4), Las Vegas (5-4), Cincinnati (5-4), Indianapolis (5-5), Cleveland (5-5), Denver (5-5).
The Steelers and Chargers occupy the final two playoff positions, but the AFC is wide open. Roller coaster teams such as the Colts, Browns, and Broncos are very much in the race thanks to the 17th game. The Browns can have a stinker like last Sunday’s 45-7 loss to the Patriots and remain squarely in the hunt.
The NFL has to love the fact that 12 of the AFC’s 16 teams are .500 or better. The race for the final few spots is wide open.
Start preparing for the offseason (4): Miami (3-7), New York Jets (2-7), Jacksonville (2-7), Houston (1-8).
The Dolphins might have a faint pulse, if they can win their upcoming games against the Jets, Panthers, and Giants. Otherwise, these teams will be playing out the string over the final two months.
Contenders: (5): Green Bay (8-2), Arizona (8-2), Dallas (7-2), Los Angeles Rams (7-3), Tampa Bay (6-3).
These are the top five teams in the NFC, with the top five quarterbacks. The only question is seeding. The Packers sit at No. 1 thanks to their win over the Cardinals, and their 6-1 conference record will give the Packers the advantage in most tiebreaker scenarios. The Cardinals have lost two of three but seem to be sacrificing the short term for the greater good of getting Kyler Murray healthy.
The Cowboys are clicking again with a healthier Dak Prescott, and their Week 17 showdown with the Cardinals could be huge for seeding. The Rams have lost two straight entering their bye and need to go on a run down the stretch — including a must-win game against the Cardinals in Week 14. The Buccaneers have the worst odds of getting the No. 1 seed, with a 4-3 conference record that will be costly in tiebreakers.
In the mix (10): New Orleans (5-4), Carolina (5-5), Minnesota (4-5), San Francisco (4-5), Philadelphia (4-6), Atlanta (4-6), Washington (3-6), New York Giants (3-6), Seattle (3-6), Chicago (3-6).
This is the NFL’s dream. With only two wild-card spots available, there is enough parity — some would say mediocrity — in the league that the NFC has 10 teams still reasonably alive in the race.
Carolina and Atlanta, who were both dismantled by the Patriots, are still very much in the hunt. The Eagles, rebuilding with a temporary quarterback, are in the mix. Even the 3-6 teams are just three hot weeks away from being in playoff position.
Without the 17 games or seventh playoff spot, many of those fan bases would start tuning out.
Start preparing for the offseason (1): Detroit (0-8-1).
The Lions are the only NFC team with no shot at the playoffs. But Lions fans are used to this by now.
TOUGH TO BEAT
Vrabel has Titans in driver’s seat
Last week, I picked Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury as the NFL’s midseason Coach of the Year. With all due respect to Kingsbury, I need a mulligan. The obvious answer is Mike Vrabel, whose Titans are 8-2 and the top seed in the AFC.
The Titans have won six in a row, including the last five against 2020 playoff teams. They are 7-0 against playoff teams from a year ago and in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed, which comes with a first-round bye and home-field advantage through the playoffs.
The Titans have a three-game lead in the AFC South, a 1½-game lead in the conference, and a remaining schedule filled with cupcakes — two games against the Texans and one each against the Jaguars and Dolphins. The website FiveThirtyEight gives the Titans a 75 percent chance to get the No. 1 seed.
The Titans’ dominance is even more impressive considering they’ve changed offensive coordinators, several pieces on offense, and have been decimated by injuries. The Titans have already used 82 players, 10 more than any other team and two off the NFL record set by the 2020 49ers and 2019 Dolphins. And Tennessee has seven games to go.
“You might want to take the over. Just a hunch,” Vrabel quipped.
The Titans are 2-0 since putting running back Derrick Henry on injured reserve, and 3-1 without wide receiver Julio Jones. The defense has improved from 24th to 15th in points allowed from last year even though their big free agent addition, pass rusher Bud Dupree, has just one sack and two starts because of injuries.
The Titans’ offense has been rusty the last two weeks without Henry. And it may never get fully back on track without him. But Vrabel has his team playing tough, smart football, and the Titans will be tough to beat at home in the playoffs.
These guys don’t sit back and watch
When Russell Wilson missed the Seahawks’ Week 6 game against Pittsburgh, it ended his streak of 149 regular-season starts, dating to Week 1 of his rookie season.
The new durability king is Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who will make his 155th consecutive start Sunday against the Eagles. Jordan has played in all 169 games since entering the league in 2011, and Week 16 of his rookie season was the only game he didn’t start.
Other ironmen include Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins (128 straight starts), Falcons tackle Jake Matthews (119), Eagles center Jason Kelce (115), and Washington tackle Charles Leno (102).
And the new leader among quarterbacks is non other than 44-year-old Tom Brady, who has made 85 consecutive starts, 17 more than the next man on the list, Derek Carr. Brady hasn’t missed a start since Week 4 of 2016, the last week of his four-game suspension for Deflategate. Add in 14 postseason starts, and Monday’s game will be Brady’s 100th in a row. He is 76-23 with three Super Bowls and four conference championships since Roger Goodell punished him.
Durability is a big part of Brady’s legend, with 2008 the only season in his 21 years as a starter that he missed games because of injury. Between 2001-08, Brady started 111 consecutive regular-season games (128 including playoffs). Between 2009-15, Brady started 112 in a row (126 total). And now he has another 100-game streak.
Monday’s game will be Brady’s 226th consecutive start in games in which he is eligible to play.
Offering up some help
On its face, the Packers’ stock offering this past week seemed a little, well, cheesy. The Packers offered 300,000 shares at $300 apiece (plus a $35 handling fee), but it’s not a stock offering in the common sense. It can’t be traded, and you’re not tapping into the Packers’ coffers. “Purchasers should not purchase common stock with the purpose of making a profit,” reads the disclaimer. The only thing you get for your donation is a piece of paper.
The stock offering, the team’s sixth since 1923 (and first since 2011), raised $36.7 million in the first 36 hours, per the Green Bay Press-Gazette. The team hopes to raise $90 million for stadium improvements.
Then again, no one is twisting anyone’s arm. If Packers fans want to chip in for improvements to Lambeau Field — which looks terrific after several rounds of renovations, for what it’s worth — then more power to them.
And if this stock offering helps keep intact the only publicly owned nonprofit sports team, then a donation certainly has a lot more value to Packers fans than just the piece of paper.
Message to the teams
The main headline from the memo the NFL circulated to all 32 teams on Tuesday was that the league is tightening its COVID-19 protocols for the week following the Thanksgiving weekend, in preparation for a possible spike in cases. The memo stated that all players, coaches, and staffers would be tested twice and be required to wear masks for the week following Thanksgiving, regardless of vaccination status.
But more notable were the lengthy sections devoted to enforcement of the protocols. The NFL reminded teams that it is “periodically” reviewing security camera footage to ensure compliance, that teams are required to send their weekly schedules of meeting times and lifts to the league office, and that starting Nov. 29 teams will be required to have security footage available for weight rooms and cafeterias, with footage to be archived for a month.
The NFL also informed teams that it is offering to send a league staffer to team facilities “to assist with the enforcement of the protocols at your facility,” i.e. to serve as the Mask Cop.
The memo didn’t mention it, but the subtext is obvious. The Aaron Rodgers immunization episode revealed the NFL and its teams haven’t been all that stringent in enforcing COVID protocols this year.
Not sure about the logic in the Jets starting Joe Flacco on Sunday against the Dolphins, unless Mike White’s forearm contusion is too much for him to be effective. But you’ve got to love Flacco’s attitude and enthusiasm for the game. He’s almost 37, has started 175 games in the NFL, won a Super Bowl, and earned about $166 million over his first 12 seasons. Yet Flacco is playing for $3.5 million this year and is giddy about getting his first start of the season for a 2-7 team. “I’m 14 years in. I want to play now more than ever,” he said this past week. “I’m the kind of guy, you’re going to need to kick me out. Obviously everybody has an ego. But I love this game. I’ve been playing it for a really long time. People, if given the opportunity, have the right to keep playing as long as they can. That’s what I’m going to do.” … Two of the NFL Draft’s top picks aren’t close to seeing the field these days. Jets quarterback Zach Wilson, the No. 2 pick, was supposed to miss 2-4 weeks when he injured his knee against the Patriots. But Sunday will be his fourth game out, and Wilson is not close to returning. “We’re just trying to monitor and make sure he gets back to full health and confidence,” coach Robert Saleh said. Perhaps the Jets have realized how far away they are this year, and how far Wilson has to go. And 49ers quarterback Trey Lance, the No. 3 overall pick, hasn’t taken a snap in three weeks after throwing for 192 yards and a pick in a loss to the Cardinals. The 49ers have gone 2-2 with Jimmy Garoppolo and coach Kyle Shanahan perhaps realizes that Garoppolo is at his best when he’s not worrying about the rookie coming in for a handful of snaps … The Patriots are 10-1 on “Thursday Night Football” since 2010, excluding two Week 1 kickoff games. And the Patriots are not only 5-0 on the road, but 4-1 against the spread … Patriots receiver Jakobi Meyers may only have one touchdown this year, but he’s one of four players with two 2-point conversions. The others are Ravens tight end Mark Andrews, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, and Giants quarterback Daniel Jones … Antonio Brown’s former chef opened a giant can of worms by accusing Brown of faking his vaccination card. The NFL could most likely verify Brown’s vaccination, as well as that of 2,000 players and about 5,000 coaches and staffers. Whether the NFL wants to undergo that meticulous process is another question entirely.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.