The three certainties of the 2010s: death, taxes, and the Patriots earning a first-round bye.
They have earned one all nine times this decade, an NFL record. They haven’t played in the wild card round since 2009. When the Patriots start the season, we can slot them in ink in the divisional round, and for the last eight years, the AFC Championship game.
But this all may come to a crashing halt in 2019. With four weeks to go in the regular season, the AFC playoff race from top to bottom is as wide open as it has been in the past decade. The Patriots are no longer the No. 1 seed after Sunday night’s loss to the Texans. If they lose to the Chiefs Sunday, their grip on No. 2 will be tenuous.
Heck, the Patriots aren’t even guaranteed to win the AFC East, with Buffalo nipping at their heels. The Patriots could be — gasp — a wild card team this year.
We start the Week 13 review by taking a deep look at the AFC playoff race:
■ Of course, the Patriots can still get the No. 1 seed, as they are currently tied with Baltimore at 10-2. But they also could finish at No. 2, 3, 4, or even 5 if they don’t take care of business.
They currently sit two games ahead of 8-4 Kansas City and Houston for the second bye. But they now have lost the head-to-head tiebreaker to the Texans, and if they lose next Sunday, to the Chiefs as well. The Chiefs have won three of four and seem to have gotten their groove back with a 40-9 win over the Raiders Sunday.
The Chiefs also finish with three relatively easy games: Broncos, at Bears, and Chargers. The Texans finish with the Broncos, two games with the Titans, and at the Bucs. The Patriots need to finish 3-1 to ensure they get a first-round bye.
And, shockingly, winning the AFC East is no guarantee, either. The pesky Bills are 9-3, just one game behind the Patriots after winning three in a row. They have a tough schedule coming up: Baltimore, at Pittsburgh, at New England, and the Jets. But the Week 16 Patriots-Bills game, which once seemed like nothing more than a playoff tuneup, is suddenly a huge game.
If the Patriots lose to the Chiefs and Bills, they may be looking not only at playing on Wild Card Weekend, but on the road. Weird!
■ The top five playoff teams appear set — Ravens, Patriots, Texans, Chiefs, and Bills — but the race for the No. 6 seed is going to be fascinating. The 7-5 Steelers keep winning, somehow, and currently hold the last playoff spot. They own the tiebreaker over the other 7-5 team, the red-hot Titans, by having a better conference record. The Raiders and Colts are next at 6-6, and the Browns are still mathematically in the race at 5-7.
The race is wide open, and the NFL has to love it.
■ The NFC playoff field is a little more settled, though the 49ers, Saints, Packers, and Seahawks are battling for seeding. The NFC East race is still open — the Cowboys and Eagles apparently are playing a game of “who wants it the least?” — and the Rams’ blowout win over the Cardinals pushed them to 7-5 and kept them in the race for the No. 6 seed.
But unless the 6-6 Bears pull off a miracle over the final four weeks, the final playoff spot will come down to the Vikings or Rams. Los Angeles finishes with Seattle, at Dallas, at San Francisco, and Arizona, while the Vikings get the Lions, at Chargers, Packers, and Bears. My money is on the Vikings.
■ It’s the Ravens’ world, and we’re just living in it. They won their eighth in a row by outlasting the 49ers in a 20-17 slugfest, overcoming nasty weather and a nasty defense by winning on a 49-yard field goal by Justin Tucker at the buzzer. The Ravens have another tough game this week at Buffalo but then finish with the Jets, at Browns, and Steelers. I hear Baltimore is lovely in late January.
■ That was a “good” loss for the 49ers, if there is such a thing. It dropped the Niners to 10-2, into a tie with the Saints for the NFC No. 1 seed. But the 49ers showed a lot of mettle and toughness hanging with the NFL’s best team, on the road, at 1 p.m. (never easy for West Coast teams), and in horrible conditions.
Jimmy Garoppolo could muster only 3 points in the second half, but the defense also held the Ravens to just a field goal after halftime, and Lamar Jackson finished the day with just 105 passing yards. Kyle Shanahan’s team will not be fun to face in the postseason.
■ It’s time to reevaluate Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. In New England, we have viewed him as a mediocre tactician who for the last several years has not gotten the most out of his talent.
But the man definitely can coach. That became clear with Sunday’s 20-13 win over the Browns, in which the Steelers were severely shorthanded. They played with the quarterback who was fourth on the depth chart in training camp (Devlin Hodges) and didn’t have running back James Connor, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, center Maurkice Pouncey, or defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt.
The Steelers haven’t made excuses since Ben Roethlisberger went down in Week 2. They struggled early on, falling into a 1-4 hole, but have won six of seven to grab the final playoff spot. Tomlin deserves a serious look for Coach of the Year,
■ You do not want to play the Titans right now. They had a convincing 31-17 win at Indianapolis for their fifth win in six games since Ryan Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota at quarterback. In their last three games, the Titans are averaging 36 points, Tannehill hasn’t thrown an interception, and Derrick Henry has averaged 165 rushing yards.
The Titans have two games against the Texans that will decide the AFC South, and had Mike Vrabel gone to Tannehill earlier in the season, they’d probably be competing for the No. 1 seed. Tannehill, left for dead by the Dolphins, deserves heavy consideration for Comeback Player of the Year.
■ It looks as if we can finally stick a fork in the following coaches and teams: Panthers coach Ron Rivera, whose team dropped to 5-7 with an embarrassing 29-21 home loss to the Redskins; the Eagles, who even if they win the NFC East will be a quick one-and-done in the playoffs; Giants coach Pat Shurmur, who is 2-10 this year and 7-21 in two seasons after getting blown out by the Packers; and Jaguars coach Doug Marrone, whose 4-8 team looked awful at home against the Bucs and are one of the NFL’s biggest disappointments.
■ Congrats to Bengals first-year coach Zac Taylor, who avoided the dreaded 0-16 burger with an impressive 22-6 win over the Jets. With the Dolphins and Redskins winning Sunday, the No. 1 draft pick looks like it will come down to the 1-11 Bengals or 2-10 Giants.
■ Colts QB Jacoby Brissett: Threw for 319 yards and a touchdown, but also had two interceptions in the second half, including one in the fourth quarter, in the loss to the Titans.
The once-promising Colts are now 6-6, and Brissett’s future as their starter is becoming murky.
■ Colts K Adam Vinatieri: Poor Vinny missed a 55-yarder wide right and had two kicks blocked (46 and 53). Hate to see him go out like this.
■ Titans CB Logan Ryan: Had seven tackles and a big interception — his fourth of the season — in the win over the Colts. The Titans gave Ryan three years and $30 million before the 2017 season, and he has earned every penny, and then some.
■ Jets WR Demaryius Thomas: Had only three catches for 23 yards in the Jets’ loss to the Bengals. But the Patriots still could use him.
■ Brian Flores, Miami: What a win over Philadelphia, 37-31. The Dolphins went 3 for 3 on fourth down with two touchdowns, including a tremendous fake field goal in which the punter threw a TD pass to the kicker. The Dolphins hurt their chances for the No. 1 draft pick, but who cares? The players love their coach, and the organization feels great about the future.
■ Matt Patricia, Detroit: Tough break for Matty P, who is stuck playing third-string QB David Blough for the foreseeable future. Matt Stafford is out with a broken back, backup Jeff Driskel went on IR, and the Lions had to poach Kyle Sloter off the Cardinals’ practice squad just to have a backup this week.
■ Mike Vrabel, Tennessee: Pushing all the right buttons, and suddenly has the hottest offense in the NFL.
■ Bill O’Brien, Houston: Great win, and congrats on finally beating Bill Belichick. But, good lord, your team has to close out better than it did Sunday night.
Stats of the Week
(via NFL and ESPN)
■ The Dolphins’ Jason Sanders became the first kicker to catch a touchdown pass since the Broncos’ Jim Turner in October 1977.
■ Dolphins QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown a TD pass against the Eagles for seven different teams (Rams, Bengals, Bills, Texans, Jets, Bucs, and Dolphins), the only player in NFL history to accomplish such a feat.
■ Henry has 1,725 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns in his last 16 games, and joined Jim Brown, Eric Dickerson, O.J. Simpson, and Adrian Peterson as the only running backs with 145 yards and a touchdown in three consecutive games.
■ Hodges joined Ed Rubbert as the only undrafted rookie quarterbacks in NFL history to win their first two starts.
■ Jackson passed and rushed for at least 100 yards each for the fourth game this season, an NFL record.