The Patriots better watch out for the teams below them in the AFC playoffs
Patriots fans have been keeping an eye on the Chiefs all season. The Chargers and Texans came on the radar last month as two teams that could challenge for the AFC title.
But the Patriots shouldn’t just look up in the standings. They better watch out for the teams below them. There’s a good chance that the hottest teams in the AFC are all currently battling for the No. 6 seed.
The Ravens, Colts, and Titans are all 8-6 and jockeying for the final playoff spot, and a decent case can be made that they are playing the best football right now as the season reaches a crescendo.
The suddenly wide-open AFC race is where we start our Week 15 Review:
■ The Ravens currently hold the No. 6 seed thanks to having the best conference record of the three (6-4), and they have played great since installing Lamar Jackson as their quarterback during the bye six weeks ago.
The Ravens are 4-1 since making the switch, with their only loss coming in overtime at Kansas City. And they’re doing it the old-fashioned way, with defense and the running game. The Ravens are No. 1 in the NFL in points and yards allowed, and have held their opponents to fewer than 20 points in three of their last four games.
Jackson, meanwhile, has been a weapon not with his arm, but with his feet. He has thrown for just 731 yards in his five starts (146.2 per game) with four touchdowns and three interceptions, but he has rushed a whopping 86 times (17.2 per game) for 427 yards and two touchdowns. With Gus Edwards also running well, the Ravens have become the first team since the 1976 Steelers to rush for at least 190 yards in five straight games.
■ The Colts are perhaps the hottest team in the NFL, winning their seventh game out of eight on Sunday with a 23-0 throttling of the Cowboys. Andrew Luck and the revival of the Colts’ offense gets most of the attention, but the Colts’ defense is legit, ranked No. 10 in points and yards allowed, and holding two of their last three opponents under 7 points. Sunday’s win was the Colts’ first shutout since 2014, and the Cowboys’ first time being shut out since 2003.
■ And the Titans, who have run hot and cold all season, are on fire right now. Their 17-0 win over the Giants on Sunday was their third straight victory, and their first shutout since 2000. The Titans have held their opponents to 14 or fewer points six times this season.
■ The Ravens control their destiny for the final wild-card spot (and can win the AFC North if the 8-5-1 Steelers stumble). But if the Ravens lose at the Chargers this week, and the Titans beat the Redskins and the Colts beat the Giants, the final wild-card spot will go to the winner of the Week 17 Titans-Colts game. That’s not an implausible scenario.
No matter if it’s the Ravens, Colts, or Titans getting the No. 6 seed, they won’t be a fun matchup for the No. 3 team in the Wild Card round.
■ Speaking of teams that are hot, watch out for the . . . Cleveland Browns? Gregg Williams continues to show just how bad of a coach Hue Jackson was by winning at Denver, 17-16, to give the Browns their fourth win in five weeks. The Browns are now 6-7-1, and still mathematically alive in the AFC playoff race.
The Browns’ job will be arguably the most attractive vacancy this offseason, but Williams, formerly the Bills head coach from 2001 to ’03, and offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens are making a decent case to keep their jobs for next season.
And Saturday’s win at Denver was impressive, even with the Broncos struggling this year. Denver is one of the toughest road stadiums in the NFL, and the Browns’ win was their first in Denver since 1990, snapping an 11-game losing streak against the Broncos.
■ For the 15th time in 16 years, a team has gone from worst to first in its division. This year it’s the Chicago Bears, who clinched the NFC North title on Sunday with a 24-17 win over the Packers. The win was the Bears’ seventh in eight games, and improved their record to 10-4. The win was especially sweet for Bears left tackle Charles Leno, who got engaged to his girlfriend on the field immediately after the game.
First-year head coach Matt Nagy is making a good case for Coach of the Year, turning an offense that ranked 29th in scoring last year to sixth this season.
And the Bears can actually overtake the Rams for one of the NFC’s first-round byes. The 11-3 Rams currently sit in the No. 2 spot, one game ahead of the Bears, but the Bears own the tiebreaker over the Rams thanks to their head-to-head win two weeks ago. The Bears finish at San Francisco and at Minnesota, while the Rams play at Arizona and vs. San Francisco.
■ Nick Foles is back, baby. The Super Bowl hero got his first start since Week 3 thanks to Carson Wentz’s bad back, and all he did was go into Los Angeles and lead the Eagles to a 30-23 victory over the Rams. Foles completed 24 of 31 passes for 270 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception, keeping the Eagles in the playoff hunt at 7-7, one game behind the Cowboys in the NFC East.
Foles, who will start again for the Eagles this week against the Texans, admitted on Sunday that he can’t help but think about what this opportunity can mean for his future.
Foles has a $20 million option with the Eagles next year, which if declined by the team means Foles will be a free agent.
“That part does creep in,” Foles said after the game. “I do say there is a human side, but I’m very self-aware that those distractions don’t do you any good. I really thrive in staying in the moment and just enjoying it.”
■ The NFC’s top teams are heading in the wrong direction as the playoffs grow near. The Rams are just 1-2 since scoring 54 points against Kansas City, scoring 30 in a win over Detroit but looking punchless in losses to the Bears and Eagles. Jared Goff seems to have hit a wall, throwing more interceptions in his last three games (seven) than he had in his first 11 games (six). The Rams also look like they badly miss slot receiver and third-down machine Cooper Kupp, out for the year with a torn ACL.
And the Saints’ offense is grinding to a halt. They improved to 12-2 and took control of the No. 1 playoff seed with Monday’s 12-9 win over Carolina, but they’ve gained 312, 176, 298, and 346 yards in their last four games. Drew Brees has thrown an interception in four straight games, and his 203 passing yards against the Panthers were his most in this four-game stretch. The 12 points on Monday were the Saints’ fewest in a victory since 1998.
■ Well, who didn’t see that Dolphins-Vikings result coming? Everything about it was predictable.
And the Vikings’ offense naturally scored a season-high 41 points, a week after firing offensive coordinator John DeFilippo in part for his refusal to run the football. New offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski called 35 handoffs compared with 26 passes, and the result was the Vikings’ highest yardage output since Week 8, a season-high 220 rushing yards, and the Vikings’ first 40-point game since 2015.
■ The Redskins remained alive in the NFC playoff race with a 16-13 win at Jacksonville to improve to 7-7. The game was a snoozer, but it was the moment of a lifetime for quarterback Josh Johnson, starting his first NFL game since 2011 and earning his first career win on Sunday as the Redskins’ emergency starter.
In between starts for the Bucs and the Redskins, Johnson made stops with 10 other NFL teams, plus the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the UFL. On Sunday he completed 16 of 25 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown.
“I know every opportunity I get could be my last one,” Johnson said after the win. “I just want to leave it all out on the field. I owe this game that much because I love it that much.”
■ Coaches who probably sealed their fates last weekend: Arizona’s Steve Wilks with a 40-14 loss at Atlanta, Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone with the 16-13 loss to Washington, and Denver coach Vance Joseph with a 17-16 loss to Cleveland. Jets coach Todd Bowles and Bucs coach Dirk Koetter are also probably out, and Miami’s Adam Gase and Carolina’s Ron Rivera aren’t feeling too secure right now.
■ Titans CB Logan Ryan: The ex-Patriots cornerback, now in his second season in Tennessee, broke his fibula in the Titans’ win at the Giants and is out for the season. Ryan doesn’t have an interception this year, but he does have four sacks, rarely comes off the field, and is an important leader in their locker room. Tough news for a good player and person.
■ Rams WR Brandin Cooks: Caught six passes for 59 yards in the Rams’ 30-23 loss to the Eagles. Cooks has very good numbers this year: 72 catches for 1,107 yards and three touchdowns. But in his last three games he only has 13 catches for 143 yards and no scores.
■ Texans CB Johnson Bademosi: Has played 270 snaps as a core special teamer, but the Texans only have used him on 20 defensive snaps all season. Bademosi played 214 defensive snaps for the Patriots last year, and famously (or infamously) played cornerback over Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl. But the Texans have kept him away from their defense.
Our favorite stats
■ With the Chargers’ comeback against the Chiefs, teams trailing by 14 points with five minutes remaining improved to 12-2,047 since 2000.
■ The Chargers also became the first team since the Vikings in Week 15 of 2002 to win a game on a 2-point conversion in the final 10 seconds of regulation.
■ Dolphins RB Frank Gore, who may be done for the season with an ankle injury, has 722 rushing yards but no touchdowns this year. It’s the ninth-most rushing yards in NFL history for a player with no touchdowns. Gore, ranked 23rd for most rushing yards this year, is also the only rusher ranked in the top 50 this season without a TD.
■ The Browns are 6-0 when they allow fewer than 21 points, and 0-7-1 when they allow 21-plus.
■ The Steelers have made 61.1 percent of their field goals (11 of 18). No team has finished under 60 percent since the 2000 Bengals (57.1 percent).
■ Aaron Rodgers finally threw an interception, ending his NFL-record streak at 402 consecutive passes without a pick.
■ Los Angeles has two teams in the NFL playoffs for the first time since 1985.
■ The Eagles (plus-13½ at the Rams) became the sixth underdog of at least 10 points to win outright this year. The Bills were 16½-point underdogs in their Week 3 win over the Vikings.
■ The Dolphins have 12 touchdowns of at least 50 yards this year, five more than any other NFL team.