Sorting the Playoff Mess, from Cardinals to Lions
NFL Week 13 - Andrew: Hello and welcome to this week's edition of Scramble for the Ball, where the new 18-week schedule means we can finally say we're exactly two-thirds of the way through the regular season. Sure, we hate the untidiness of teams playing an odd number of games, but that makes it all the more important to find the positives in the new schedule while it lasts.
Bryan: It's also the absolute favorite time of year for us sickos out there. As we speak, all 32 teams are still mathematically alive for the playoffs, and will continue to be so until about 4 p.m. Eastern on Sunday as the race for the bottom concludes. The Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, and Jacksonville Jaguars all still have the faintest ghost of a chance to still play some bonus football, and those chances are due to expire this week.
Andrew: Those chances better expire tout de suite. The 7-9 Seahawks and Football Team were bad enough. I don't want to live in a world where the 6-10-1 Lions make the postseason.
Bryan: Ah, but I wouldn't want to live in a world where the 0-10-1 Lions couldn't make the postseason. Heck, they could even still earn the sixth seed in the crazy NFC, so they're not even being artificially buoyed by the new 14-team format! There's still hope for Dan Campbell's knee-biters! Not, like, a lot of it, but some!
Like I said, sickos.
Andrew: Houston's last chance realistically went kaput with the home loss to the Jets this past weekend, whereas Jacksonville's went kaput sometime in the summer of 2018 or so.
Bryan: Oh, I'd argue Houston's chances went kaput with their personnel decisions this offseason, but this isn't time for looking back in sadness—it's for looking forward, with hope! Well, degrees of hope, at any rate.
For as much as I love finding all the crazy, weird scenarios that can get terrible teams into the playoffs, by this point, we have a fairly clear separation of wheat from chaff. This is as good a time as any to take a sort of 20,000-foot view of the state of the league and try to figure out who's dead and who's only very badly burnt; who's in and who should be glancing back nervously over their shoulder; who's fighting and who's schedule fodder for the rest of the way.
Andrew: Here's a quick reminder of the current standings. In the AFC, the Ravens currently hold the No. 1 seed with the Patriots, Titans, and Chiefs joining them as division leaders. The wild-card entries would be the 7-4 Bengals, 7-4 Bills, and 6-5 Chargers.
The NFC has the Cardinals atop the conference, followed by the Packers, Buccaneers, and Cowboys. Your weird and wonderful wild-card selections would be the 7-4 Rams, 6-5 49ers, and 5-6 Football Team (yes, really).
Bryan: For all the joking about the Lions, Jaguars, and Texans, they're toast, and have been for weeks. Even if you were to suddenly to replace their rosters with the 1985 Bears or something, they probably would still miss the playoffs at this point; they have the awful combination of a massive hole to climb out of and being really bad, and I'm sure we'll talk more about them when we do our Coaching Hot Seat review in a week or two.
Andrew: There's a certain amount of cause and effect in having a massive hole to climb out of and being really bad. Oh, and in having insecure coaching situations, too. Funny, that.
Bryan: Less of a venn diagram, and more of a big circle, I agree.
But just because other teams can't be eliminated this week doesn't mean they're not also dead. Talking about insecure coaching situations, say hello to the Chicago Bears! I'd place them right in this tier, making the act of sending Lions-Bears to a national Thanksgiving audience something of a cruel joke on the rest of us.
(Programming note: with the rumors that Matt Nagy would be fired post-Thanksgiving, we had agreed to do a coaching hot seat review had that come to pass. But for now, Nagy continues to cling onto a job for reasons passing understanding. It won't be for much longer.)
Andrew: The Jets are in here, too, somehow having gone this long in the list of terrible teams while only being mentioned in passing. A win over the Texans ain't the cure for what ails ya, and plenty ails the Jets. Between the No. 32 DVOA defense and the sixth-hardest future schedule, it probably won't be a fun winter in the Meadowlands.
Bryan: Yeah, the Jets never really got off the ground. But that was expected with a new coach and a rookie quarterback and the worst roster in football by the end of last season. There are a couple of other teams that might fit here, though, and ones that people weren't expecting to be here when the season started.
Did you know the Seattle Seahawks have never finished last in the NFC West? If you did know that, you're wrong—they were last in 1976, in the one year they played there before getting shunted to the AFC. But since rejoining in 2002, they have always stayed clear of the bottom. After watching them on Monday night, uh ... can we call them officially toast? I feel like we can call them out of it, Russell Wilson or no Russell Wilson.
Andrew: It's not just about Wilson. Seattle's schedule gets a lot easier from here out, but their defense is below average and their offense looks broken. They're better than their record, but their record has dug them far too deep of a hole. If you forced me to bet that a team with four or fewer wins will make the postseason, Seattle would be the one I'd pick, but that's not exactly great company to keep.
Bryan: I'm not 100% sure I'd agree with you there, but I'll keep my other pick in my back pocket for a section.
There's one team I'm highly torn about including here: the Miami Dolphins. A month ago, yes, they were 1-7 and obviously out of everything, and I think most of us stopped paying attention to them then. But since then, they have rattled off four straight wins (including one over Baltimore) and are technically a game and a half out of the wild-card slot. So, are they truly dead, or only mostly dead, being 13th in the conference?
Andrew: With the Giants, Jets, and quarterbackless Saints yet to play, Miami's not quite on a mortuary slab just yet. 8-7, potentially, could leave them needing to split with the Titans and Patriots in Weeks 17 and 18. That's doable. They sure dug themselves a hole, but they started climbing out just in time.
I think I agree, though I'd guess they need to win both of those Titans-Patriots games to feel comfortable about any sort last-ditch playoff run. But that does put them into a different category. So we'll leave the dead as the Jets, Texans, Jaguars, Bears, Seahawks, and Lions, and move on to...
Bryan: On November 18, 2018, the Philadelphia Eagles lost to the Saints 48-7, falling to 4-6 and looking like the defending Super Bowl champs would be spending January sitting at home. From there, they rebounded to go 5-1, make the playoffs, and even win a wild-card game. That's the quality of teams we're looking at here—teams that have no business thinking of playoffs based on their record to this point, but have won just enough games that, if everything starts going right, could still make noise.
Andrew: The Falcons are the obvious headliners here, because they are terrible and it should be a minor miracle for them to have accrued five wins all season, never mind at the two-thirds mark. Guess it helps when you play the Jets, Jaguars, Dolphins, Giants, and Trevor Siemian Saints.
Bryan: Yeah, when you said that there's a high correlation between being bad and being having a massive hole to climb out of, the Falcons are the exception that proves the rule. With an offense that consists solely of "wow, Cordarrelle Patterson finally became something!" and a defense that technically takes up physical space but that's about it, they're 32nd in DVOA and 31st in estimated wins … and are tied for the last wild-card slot as we speak. There were times this year where they were 32nd and in playoff position. I think most Falcons fans have accepted throughout the year that Atlanta's record wasn't exactly reflective of their quality of play, but they're still here! If Calvin Ridley comes back, and Matt Ryan gets five years younger … OK, it's not likely, but that's why they're in a different class here.
I'd also throw the Panthers here while we're talking about the NFC South; they have the worst offensive DVOA in football over the last eight weeks and have squandered all the good vibes from that 3-0 start.
Andrew: The Panthers were my next pick too. They have the hardest remaining schedule according to DVOA, only two wins since the start of October, and a bunch of losses to teams they'd be competing with for a wild-card spot (Vikings, the entire NFC East). With the Buccaneers twice and the Bills in their final five games, rather than looking at playoff scenarios, they would be better off looking at draft guides with a focus on mid-round picks. At least if they make the postseason, they can justifiably claim they have earned it.
Bryan: And now Christian McCaffrey is out for the year! And the Cam Newton good vibes have died down, even though I'd blame this week's performance on one of the worst offensive line showings I have ever seen rather than strictly on the quarterbacks. Like the Falcons, if the Panthers weren't at five wins already, I'd call them dead, but there has to be some kind of respect for the season to date.
While we're writing off divisions, let's throw the Eagles and Giants from the NFC East in here. The Giants are actually the four-win team I'd pick to make the postseason if I absolutely had to—not because I think their potential is better than the Seahawks, mind you, but because they still play the Cowboys, Eagles, and Football Team, as well as the Bears and Dolphins (and Chargers), and play in the division with the lowest ceiling in the NFC, with the Cowboys at 7-4 and facing a COVID game on Thursday. I'm not saying they're going to get into contention, oh my no, but the possibility of a Dallas collapse and the Eagles or Giants sliding in as a terrible division champ seems at least marginally more plausible than the same happening in the NFC West.
Andrew: The Giants, at least, have something going for them. That's more than we can say for most of the bottom teams.
Bryan: Lap running? A new basketball hoop to play with during practice? A lack of Jason Garrett?
Andrew: The Giants are another team which came out of nowhere to win a Super Bowl in the FO era. That won't happen again, but their defense and special teams are kinda good. Not as good as, say, the Panthers defense, but still above average. Though bizarrely, the Texans somehow have a significantly better defensive DVOA than I suspect most people would guess. They're ranked No. 8!
Bryan: The brief moment of Eagles, Serious Wild-Card Contenders was fun, but I never felt like it was particularly sustainable—heck, I had the Eagles earning the first overall draft pick before the season started, so they showed me! Jalen Hurts has been better than expected, though not necessarily this past week. So of these four NFC teams, I think they should have the most optimism going forward, even if there's still plenty, plenty of work to do before they can avoid this tier going forward.
The AFC feels like they have fewer teams here, if only because everyone is stuck at six wins. But the Steelers would qualify, surely—if you tie with the Lions, that's automatic demerits, and they just got absolutely pasted by the Bengals a week after they couldn't slow the Chargers down at all either.
Andrew: Pittsburgh's run-in is also brutal. Five teams above .500 and the wild card-chasing Vikings at 5-6. They can't be counted out completely—the Ravens, Titans, and Browns have issues of their own, and Tomlin has dragged .500 out of a full season of Mason Rudolph in the past—but they're only staying alive by the skin of their teeth at this stage.
Bryan: Well, this isn't the "counted out completely" tier, of course, and Tomlin does seem like one of the coaches out there who could find a way to pull some magic out of nowhere to find a wild-card spot. The biggest problem is that they're behind the Chargers, and the Raiders, and the Broncos, and the Colts—they don't just have to win; they have to have a number of teams ahead of them all crumble, and it's a lot to ask for.
And that kind of leads me to the Browns—hi, Browns! You're a six-win team, which is great and all, but you're still actually behind the Steelers in the playoff race thanks to your Week 8 loss, and your quarterback can't move his arm, and you have the Ravens, Raiders, Packers, Steelers, and Bengals left on your schedule. Take that brutal schedule, add in all the teams they'd need to leapfrog, and they fit here too, right?
Andrew: I guess, if the Steelers are here, then the Browns should be too. Like you say, it's really weird to be having this conversation about two .500 teams because it seems like the entire AFC has six or seven wins. Usually, we have a couple of teams pushing double digits by Week 13, not twelve teams at .500 or better.
Bryan: It's a year of no truly great teams, so we have this ugly mishmash in the middle of the pack. The Steelers and Browns have the misfortune to be at the bottom of that group at the moment, and already have some fairly nasty tiebreakers—the Browns already have five conference losses, for goodness sake. The Jaguars only have five conference losses! Add that in to the brutal end of-year-schedule, and I'm comfortable with shimmying some space between them and, say, the AFC West kerfuffle.
So, we'll go with the Falcons, Panthers, Eagles, Giants, Steelers, and Browns as teams that need to get something going right now if we're still going to be talking about them come Christmas morning.
Bryan: The flipside of the teams that are essentially, if not mathematically, out are the teams that are essentially, if not mathematically, in—the teams that could probably afford to just take the month of December off and come back to find that, oh yeah, they'll still be playing in the postseason.
I feel by this point, the Cardinals, Packers, and Buccaneers all have their respective divisions locked up in the NFC; each has at least a two-game lead on everyone else and has looked very sharp. I don't know who's going to come out on top of that group for the bye week, though I suppose I'd favor the Cardinals at this point just because of their half-game lead, but that doesn't particularly matter for the point of this exercise.
Andrew: Normally, I'd be very wary of saying the Cardinals have the NFC West locked up, especially with the Rams, Colts, and Cowboys still to play, but the Rams have looked very out of sorts since losing Robert Woods for the year, whereas the Cardinals have continued winning even with Colt McCoy under center.
Bryan: The Cardinals hardly missing a step under McCoy was kind of the story of November for me. They pasted the 49ers to the point where Kyle Shanahan's job was briefly in jeopardy, at least according to the Interwebs, and then McCoy beat the Seahawks for third time in his career, somehow. That's very, very impressive! Quarterback controversy brewing? (No.) And even if you don't necessarily agree that the division's in the bag, they have the sweep over the 49ers and a win over the Vikings to help them in a theoretical wild-card race.
Andrew: Oh, they're in the postseason for sure, barring some incredible shenanigans in the NFC. They still have the Bears, Lions, and Seahawks to play, after all. They should be thinking 12 wins and a possible bye, not whether they're making the tournament. I do think Dallas are pretty much there, too. They'll need two or three wins from their final six games to secure a wild card, and they have the Saints, Giants, Football Team (twice), Cardinals, and the Eagles. They'll be able to hit 3-3 against that lot.
Bryan: I might try to squeeze that inch of separation between the Cowboys and the other three division-leaders here. They're a game back, they have had some COVID issues they're still trying to get under control, and the extreme back-loaded-ness of the NFC East schedule gives them more uncertainty than you would expect for the beginning of December.
Andrew: Again though, I think you're quibbling whether they'll win the East, not whether they'll make the postseason. 7-4 with a favorable run in should be a very healthy position.
Bryan: By DVOA, they have the 12th-hardest schedule remaining, which isn't exactly a murderer's row, but is tougher than the 49ers, Vikings, and Saints if we're talking wild-card stuff for Dallas. I have intentionally tried to avoid looking at our playoff odds to this point—otherwise, we could have skipped writing the article and just pointed you there—but Dallas is at ... er, 93.7%, which is higher than I thought. Compared to Arizona's 99.8%, Green Bay's 99.8%, and Tampa Bay's 99.7% (slackers), there's a little tiny bit of wriggle room there.
Andrew: I'll grant you that they're a hair below the top three. If that's enough to drop them down a category, so be it.
Over in the AFC, can we pencil in both the Patriots and the Bills even though they're in the same division?
Bryan: I don't think we can, specifically because they do still play each other twice and could ruin each other's season. If you could guarantee me the split, then I'd say they're both in, but a sweep by either team would put the other one in at least minor jeopardy.
Andrew: If that's the case, then can we pencil in anybody in the AFC? Nobody has more than a two-game division lead, and the team that has the biggest lead has no receivers, no starting running back, and already lost to the Jets AND Texans this season, in addition to a 36-13 loss against the Patriots this past weekend.
Bryan: I think I'd feel somewhat OK penciling the Titans in, considering the state of their division. Someone does have to win the AFC South, I'm told by highly respected tiebreakologists.
Andrew: Say that's the Colts, though. Isn't this a repeat of the Cowboys conversation, where sure, they're making the postseason, but they're not doing so nearly as comfortably as we'd hope?
Bryan: Our playoff odds would agree with you—the Titans are at 94.2%, so just slightly higher than Dallas, but not by enough to really matter. The Titans, however, have the easiest schedule remaining by our numbers—they have had their Colts double-shot, so the Colts can't make up any direct ground on them, unlike the NFC East teams. And the Titans swept the Colts, so Indianapolis needs to actively pass them, not just tie them. And yes, the Titans have proven they can lose to anyone on any day, but the Jags, Texans, and Dolphins are a very cushy way to close a season, and while the Steelers and 49ers are admittedly tougher, they don't need to win all five games to punch their ticket. Any three wins mathematically guarantees them the division—they could lose by a zillion to both Pittsburgh and San Francisco and still be AFC South champs if they clear the other three. The Cowboys, on the other hand, need 4-2 to mathematically seal a playoff berth and 5-1 to be sure of the division. Sure, the Cowboys almost assuredly make it in at 3-3, but the Titans do the same at just 2-3. Needing one fewer win is a significant deal, to me!
Andrew: I think I'd feel a lot more comfortable about the Titans if they had a healthy receiver, as that's the big deal—it's not Derrick Henry they can't do without, but they need at least one of A.J. Brown or Julio Jones for the passing game to function. I do believe they'll win the division, and they're pretty much guaranteed the postseason. If there is one team in the AFC that fits this category, the Titans are it.
That said, it's perhaps the story of the AFC this year that there are no teams that fit this category. Not the Chiefs. Not the Bills. Not the Ravens, Steelers, or Patriots. Nobody is comfortable. Every team has at least one terrible loss on its record, whether a blowout against another contender or an awful faceplant against a bottom-feeder. The AFC is a mess, and we're fools if we're trying to sift through that with six weeks to play and 11 teams between six and eight wins.
Bryan: If you're accepting me separating the Cowboys, I'll accept you separating the Titans; seems only fair. That means it's just the Cardinals, Packers, and Buccaneers who could rest on their laurels throughout December, if they decided a wild-card round loss was enough for them.
BRUISING AND BLOODIED
Bryan: On November 26, 2016, the defending champion Denver Broncos were sitting at 7-3, coming off their bye week, having navigated the post-Manning transition as well as could be expected. They looked like a shoo-in for a playoff spot ... and then promptly went 2-4 to finish the season, getting rocked by the Chiefs and Patriots and ending up watching the postseason from their couches. A strong start doesn't necessarily mean a great finish, and there's still time to screw up three months of careful planning!
We have already covered the Cowboys and Titans, who kind of squeeze between this and the shoo-in category. But here's where your Bills and Patriots go, and I'd throw in the Ravens and Chiefs while we're at it. The Pats and Chiefs are trending upwards, with Mac Jones getting more comfortable by the week and the Chiefs offense remembering how to play football. The Ravens keep sputtering, but are still atop the conference, technically. And while the Bills are definitely trending downwards, they're still a game clear of the wild-card mess.
Andrew: And what a wild-card mess it is, in both conferences. I don't know that we have ever had this bucket of teams be so huge. Let's start with those AFC division-leaders: the Patriots started slowly, as they are wont to do, sitting at 2-4 in the middle of October. Since then, they have won six straight, including victories over playoff contenders in the Chargers, Browns, and Titans. That's a big boon, because even if they fall off from here, they already have tiebreakers for the wild-card spots.
Bryan: They're at a point where they only need to go 3-2 to mathematically lock up a playoff spot, but unlike the Titans, they have a nasty run-out. Two games against the Bills are going to decide the division, and then they have the Colts sandwiched between them. They close with the Jags and Dolphins, so you think that should be OK (although Miami has a habit of pulling off some upsets over Bill Belichick), but they have a nasty three games coming right up.
Andrew: I don't think they'll lose all three against the Colts and Bills though, especially with a bye in the middle, and one win from that plus one win from the Florida doubleheader should see them through thanks to their tiebreaker advantage.
Bryan: And that tiebreaker advantage is a real thing—while the Patriots can mathematically salt things away with 11 wins, the Bills would need 12 to be absolutely 100% no-takebacks guaranteed to make the postseason, which would require going 5-1. Mind you, 3-3 likely gets them through and 4-2 does except in the craziest scenarios, but things looked a lot rosier in Buffalo when they were sitting at 4-1 before they somehow lost to the Jaguars. And they have the Pats twice and the Buccaneers as well, so things aren't guaranteed there, either.
Those Buffalo-New England games are going to be slightly important, is what we're saying here. If either team gets swept, they're in for some nail-biting in Weeks 17 and 18.
Andrew: So that's the South and the East. The North and the West are a mess. Every team in both divisions is at least .500, and every team in both divisions has a tough run-in.
Bryan: I do think it's fair that we're giving a slight gap between the Ravens and Chiefs, each with a one-game lead, and the rest of the division, especially when you consider they both have a former MVP under center. But man, I feel much more confident in the Chiefs right now, despite Baltimore's better record. The Sunday night game between the Ravens and Browns was a competition to see who could blow the game the most—and Cleveland isn't going to lose that battle, not with years of experience behind them—whereas the "what's wrong with the Chiefs?" think pieces seem to be fading into the distant past, even if they're not at Prime Chiefs Power yet.
Andrew: I agree, plus this year's Bengals seem closer to a legitimate threat than either the Chargers, Broncos, or Raiders. One of those three will probably come out of the West, but I have no clue which one it will be. Part of me hopes it's the Broncos, just because of the Fire Vic Fangio vibes from earlier in the year. Part of me hopes it's the Raiders, just to spite Jon Gruden, though I guess it wouldn't really spite him all that much. Part of me hopes it's the Chargers, because I love me some postseason comedy.
Bryan: We'll tackle that in just a moment, but I want to group one NFC team in here with the miasma atop the AFC race at the moment—the Los Angeles Rams. Remember when the NFC was a five-team race, with everyone else being terrible, about three weeks ago?
And then remember the Rams getting knocked around by the Titans, steamrolled by the 49ers and blasted by the Packers? The Rams going 0-for-November is a heck of a development, considering they went all-in with Von Miller and Odell Beckham and all that just as the losing streak started. The November Rams are not a playoff team. Fortunately for them, I don't expect the November Rams to show up as much in December, but they do need to get things righted and in a hurry. I wouldn't be surprised at all if they have lost the fifth seed, and maybe even the sixth seed with the Cardinals, Ravens, and 49ers still on their schedule.
Andrew: Their absolute level is definitely closer to the 7-1 start than the Cold November Rams though, and they have games against the Jaguars and Seahawks in the next three weeks to help them get unstuck. They won't lose all four of their tougher games, either.
Bryan: Yeah, that's why I'm still OK putting them here instead of the muddle for the final spots—while it would take 5-1 to mathematically guarantee a spot right now, 3-3 should be more than enough, and 2-4 isn't crazy considering the randomness of the NFC at the moment. They did enough early on to survive a No-Win-Vember, even if it really knocked them out of the divisional race.
Andrew: And even there, with a game to come against the Cardinals, they aren't completely out of things.
Bryan: Maybe not completely, but I will buy you a Coke if the Rams manage to outplay the Cardinals the rest of the way. I think they're far more likely to be the seventh seed than to host the seventh seed, which is probably what we're talking about if they're NFC West champs.
Andrew: Are the Rams really the only NFC team in this category, then?
Bryan: Well, we grouped the Cowboys in earlier, but they're the only one in the wild-card race I'd put here. I'd say there are still two wild-card slots very, very much in play, though some of that might be Home Team Pessimism. We currently have the Cowboys, Rams, Titans, Patriots, Bills, Ravens, and Chiefs—quite a large group. In a season with no Great Teams, there are quite a few Good ones.
THE WALKING WOUNDED
Bryan: Just to recap, we have five AFC teams listed as probably making it, with the Bengals, Chargers, Raiders, Broncos, and Colts still remaining. We have five NFC teams listed as probably making it, with the 49ers, Football Team, Vikings, and Saints still remaining.
Andrew: In the NFC, that's two teams who have lost their starting quarterbacks for the year, one who just lost their star running back—apparently to not one but TWO torn labrums—and the 0049th M*A*S*H. Whereas in the AFC, that's a Broncos squad with no starting linebackers and an insane number of offensive line injuries, a Raiders team that lost its head coach and best wideout to off-field madness last month, a Chargers squad that is quite literally an accident waiting to happen, and then the mostly healthy Bengals and Colts. Which gives those two a pretty major leg up, really, as well as explaining why they're the two with the better records.
Bryan: The AFC is a mess. I have zero faith in any of the six-win teams, at least on a consistent, week-in and week-out basis. I don't have that much faith in the Bengals, either, but an extra win in hand against that mess means a heck of a lot. But the Bengals are 27th in variance, the worst of those five teams, which is what happens when you lose to the Jets and Bears but crush the Ravens and Steelers.
Andrew: Cincinnati's fate will be directly decided against the rest of the playoff field too. They play the Chargers, Broncos, Ravens, Chiefs, and Browns in the past six weeks, as well as the 49ers. That's a major chunk of this category in their future, so there's no relying on help elsewhere for them. They're already well ahead of my preseason expectations, and Zac Taylor is in Coach of the Year discussion, but I am not exactly confident of them sealing the deal. Really, this race is too tight to call.
Bryan: And I know we separated out the Steelers and Browns because they're at the bottom of the pile with some quarterback concerns, but I wouldn't be shocked if either of them turned it on either. It would require four or five of our remaining teams here to flounder, but, again—the Bengals lost to the Jets, the Chargers couldn't get any offense going against the Broncos, the Broncos were embarrassed by the Eagles, the Raiders got thumped by the Bears, and the Colts…
Wait, what's wrong with the Colts? Are they one of the two playoff teams in this group simply because they haven't (yet) laid a major egg? Unless you count the Seahawks in Week 1, but that was a healthier Seattle team. They took the Titans and Ravens to overtime, and while moral victories aren't one of the tiebreakers, they have maybe been the most consistently feisty team?
Andrew: Broadly, the Colts have beaten the teams they're meant to beat and lost to the teams they're meant to lose to, with perhaps an exception for a victory over the Bills in Week 11. They have the Texans and Jaguars in that former category, arguably the Patriots and Cardinals in the latter, and the Raiders game could go either way. If there is an advantage for them, it's that the Jaguars and Texans should be almost free wins, and that leaves them needing two of three from their tougher games. That's very manageable.
Bryan: The fact of the matter is this: if any of these six-win teams get four wins the rest of the way, they're very likely going to get a playoff berth. And with five teams at six wins, the odds are that somebody's going to put together four wins. That puts the Colts at a slight disadvantage, as they only have five games to rack up those four wins. The Bengals have the extra win in hand, but they have the hardest schedule of this group by a somewhat significant margin; the Chargers and Broncos have the easier run-in, but have to play each other, making it harder for the loser to pick up that fourth win…
It's a mess, is what it is. An absolute cluster of a wild-card race, which is fun and frustrating in equal measures.
The NFC, by comparison, seems a little clearer. The 49ers seem to have found an identity over the last three weeks, and it's the identity we thought they would have at the beginning of the season, when we thought they would fight for the division title. That boat has sailed, caught on fire, and sunk, but wins over the Rams and Vikings are doubly good for both their win-loss record and their tiebreakers. They're certainly not shoo-ins—they just lost to the Backup Cardinals a few weeks ago; and they always lose to Seattle, where Russell Wilson is 16-4 against them all-time; and they still have the Bengals and Titans and Rams left, so nothing's a lock here. But I think they have to feel better about themselves than the Vikings, Saints, or Football Team, injuries or no injuries.
Andrew: It's not so much a question of injuries or no injuries, as what injuries and to whom. San Francisco is recycling defensive backs quicker than the Amazon boxes they arrive in, but that's nothing like losing your starting quarterback, as the Saints and Football Team have. The Saints, in particular, have been devastated, playing without their top receiver, top two backs, top two tackles, now down their top receiving tight end, and with a whole bunch of other players missing time for one reason or another. I consider them the least likely to make it, just because the injury attrition is finally reaching breaking point.
As for the Vikings, while it may be easier to find an adequate running back than an adequate cornerback, Dalvin Cook is just a smidge above adequate, and a focal point of the Vikings offense.
Bryan: Of those three, Washington is the only one that controls their fate—win out, and they're in. For all three teams, going 5-1 down the stretch likely locks them in, but, I mean, do you trust any of them to rattle off a 5-1 record? I don't! So it may be a matter of who flops the least.
You're a Saints fan; any confidence that things will turn around now that it looks like a number of offensive starters are working their way back, and it may be Taysom Hill time on Thursday?
Andrew: As perhaps the most Taysom-skeptic of all Saints fans, color me extremely skeptical. I already consider Thursday a write-off because the Cowboys are simply better than the Saints are. They might be able to scramble together a 4-2 record with Taysom, because the Jets and Falcons are inept and the Dolphins and Panthers are very limited teams. But they'll get there by playing Panthers football, and as the Panthers will tell you, that has quite a low ceiling absent a transcendent mobile quarterback. Taysom Hill is not a transcendent mobile quarterback. Give this team a rough time of things against the Dolphins and Panthers and I can see Week 18 being Ian Book time.
Bryan: The Football Team are only here because they're on a three-game winning streak; they have really been the Anti-Rams, struggling through the first couple months before sweeping November. Beating the Panthers and Seahawks isn't exactly cause for a parade, mind you, and with two games against the Cowboys and one against the Raiders left, the schedule gets tougher fast.
Andrew: The win against Tampa Bay was impressive but costly. I think their most likely outcome is 8-9, and I don't think 8-9 gets them in.
Bryan: So maybe it still is the Vikings, who have yet to play a terrible game, have been competitive down to the wire basically every week, and have yet to lose by more than one score. They have also only won one game by more than one score, so they're walking a hell of a tightrope.
Andrew: I think so, which I'm pleased to say accords with who I think is the better of those three teams.
Really, this is just restating the difference between the conferences. The NFC picture is clearer because it has better top teams but a worse middle class. In the AFC, at least four teams with six or more wins are going to miss out on the postseason. In the NFC, at least one team with five or fewer wins is guaranteed to get in. It's going to be a heck of a December rollercoaster ride as we figure out who those teams will be.
Keep Choppin' Wood
Here at Scramble, we have generally been fairly positive about Dan Campbell this season. We have admired his aggressive tendencies on fourth down and late in the game. We have praised him for keeping the Lions competitive when many other teams with this level of roster would have thrown in the towel weeks ago. However, being a head coach is not just about motivation and strategic decisions, it's also about making sure your staff and players know the rulebook, understand game situations, and make good decisions at important moments. The Lions utterly failed at those tasks during Chicago's game-winning drive on Thanksgiving.
With Lions leading 14-13, a second-down stop brought up third-and-9 at Detroit's 16-yard line. With Chicago well within range for a field goal to take the lead, the Lions correctly called a timeout to stop the clock with 1:54 remaining, hoping to preserve time for a come-from-behind drive of their own. However, coming out of that timeout, they botched the play call so badly that, by their own admission, half the defense had one play called and the other half had another. No big deal, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn called a timeout to regroup ... except they had already called timeout to stop the clock, and the same team can't call two timeouts on the same play. (The referees also deserve a mention here, as they should not have granted the second timeout.) That meant a 5-yard penalty for delay of game, shortening the distance to third-and-4. Then, as though forgetting about the penalty yards, the Lions played the kind of off coverage that would have been great for third-and-9, but gave up the first down far too easily on third-and-4, allowing the Bears to run out the clock and kick a field goal as time expired.
The entire sequence was so inept that it would legitimately have been better for the Lions just to give up a touchdown. At least then, they would have had time to try to recover from their own mistakes—not that, as a franchise, they have ever shown any ability to do so. This was just another classic Lions performance on Thanksgiving.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
At this point, David Culley's fourth-down and late-game decision making has passed beyond mere conservatism into the realms of Pete Carroll fanfic. The latest debacle at home against the Jets gave us a pair of fourth-down decisions to lament. First, down four points with fourth-and-3 at his own 39-yard line, Culley elected to punt. Though EdjSports considered that the worst of Culley's two calls, we can just about let him off; many coaches would not have gone for that quite that early in the fourth quarter. However, on the next drive, facing fourth-and-10 at the Jets 37-yard line, Culley had his team attempt a 55-yard field goal. Not only did Ka'imi Fairbairn have a higher chance of missing the field goal than making it, the Texans would still have been behind even if he had made it. Just a few weeks ago, we pleaded with the Texans to at least try to win. Now, they're not even pretending to try. On the contrary, their two wins look more and more accidental with every passing game.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
We were pleased to see both coaches play aggressively early in the NFC's game of the week in Green Bay. Matt LaFleur made one of the top decisions of the week per EdjSports when he went for it on fourth-and-1 near midfield on the team's opening drive and converted with an Aaron Jones run. Sean McVay's decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 on his own 29-yard line was even more aggressive. Unfortunately, McVay's aggressiveness was not rewarded as Darrell Henderson was stuffed for no gain. On the road against a top team is exactly the right time to make aggressive decisions, when you're hoping variance swings the game your way. McVay is usually quite conservative on fourth down, so we were especially pleased to see him make this decision. We hope the outcome doesn't discourage him from making a similar choice next time.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
The first NFL coach fired this season was not Jon Gruden, technically—he resigned. No, it was Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, no longer to be referred to as coach. That left a hole at playcaller for the Giants, but Joe Judge remained mum. Who would be calling plays for the New York offense on Sunday? Running backs coach Burton Burns? Quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski? Former Browns offensive coordinator and head coach Freddie Kitchens, on staff as a senior offensive assistant of no defined portfolio as a personal favor to Judge? OK, we don't exactly need Hercule Poirot on the case to solve this one, but Judge insisted on making the entire thing into a mystery to try to give the Giants a competitive advantage over the Eagles. He even went as far as appointing himself "acting" offensive coordinator to fulfill the NFL's requirements that coordinators speak once a week; he could fulfill the role and keep the Eagles guessing as to just who the offensive mastermind would be on Sunday. Of course, the Eagles spent all week preparing for Kitchens, and it was indeed Kitchens on the sideline, as every single person with even half a working brain cell could have predicted. And all the subterfuge paid off, as the Giants put together their, err, eighth-most yards in a game this season. That was surely worth everybody's time.
'Noir Nights' Fantasy Player of the Week
Jack Doyle has always sounded like the obstructing cop in a 1930s noir novel; someone Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe has to work around in order to get to the business of solving the murder. Alas, he is instead forced to serve his time as the Colts tight end, to usually moderate results, his true calling not really existing outside of fiction. Against the Buccaneers, Doyle had the third-biggest receiving day of his career, and his biggest since 2017—81 yards on six catches, including a touchdown. All in a day's work for a gumshoe on the case in Circle City, where you can find targets hiding around every corner, so long as you're not gunned down in a Mo Alie(-Cox).
Doyle Rules. 🙌
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) November 28, 2021
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
Diontae Johnson has 40 targets over the past three games. Ben Roethlisberger's prime underneath target is perfect for blowout situations—like, you know, the absolute whipping the Bengals put on the Steelers this week. Seven of Johnson's nine catches came with the Steelers down at least three scores, as did 73 of his 95 yards, as he collected some of the very few Pittsburgh highlights on the day.
— TimeoutSPORTS__ (@TimeoutSPORTS3) November 28, 2021
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
The Pittsburgh Steelers opened November with a fourth consecutive win, bringing them to 5-3 in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt. They closed it 5-5-1, following up a home tie against the winless Lions by allowing two straight professional opponents to score 41 points while star edge rusher T.J. Watt is out injured. Five of their final six opponents are above .500 and the other is not far off at 5-6. That is not exactly ideal, though this being the Mike Tomlin Steelers, they're more likely to play well against good opponents than bad ones. Fortunately, two players provide some good news on offense. First, as mentioned above, Diontae Johnson is averaging a career-best 80 yards per game, well on track for the first 1,000-yard season of his career. Second, rookie halfback Najee Harris is also on track for a 1,000-yard rushing season, and in fact has already passed 1,000 yards from scrimmage if we include receiving. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is toast, but Mike Tomlin has never coached a losing season, and it would not be a total surprise—though it would be funny—for him to keep the Steelers at .500 even in a season with an odd number of games. If they do, Harris and Johnson will have played a major role.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
Honestly, it wasn't a big week for last-second plays that altered the playoff race. So I'm going to give this award to the 12-year-old in the goofy hat the Raiders let onto the field during their Thanksgiving matchup.
A Thanksgiving to remember for Daniel Carlson. #KohlsElite
✅ 5/5 field goals
✅ 56-yard field goal
✅ OT game-winner
— Kohl's Kicking Camps (@KohlsKicking) November 26, 2021
Daniel Carlson had a huge game against the Cowboys, making five field goals, including the game-winner in overtime. But due to the degree of difficulty, it's his 56-yarder near the end of regulation that I'll single out: a massive boot that ever-so-briefly gave the Raiders a lead.
Daniel Carlson from FIFTY-SIX 🦵
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) November 26, 2021
Miss that, and the Cowboys can just run the clock down and kick the game-winner. Instead, it gave the Raiders just enough of a cushion to force overtime, where Carlson eventually ended it after three straight penalties made the game-winner a chip shot. It's no Justin Tucker, mind you, but it's one of the 30 longest field goals in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter since at least 1994, and I suspect much longer. Maybe you don't put that on a plaque or something, but it's not the sort of kick you see every day.
The win wasn't enough to put the Raiders in playoff position, but it keeps them tied with the Chargers and Broncos at 6-5, where the seventh seed currently sits; the loss would have knocked them down to 12th place behind the Colts, Steelers, and Browns. And while I don't think this win alone will get them into the postseason, their odds are back up to nearly 25% thanks to the unexpected victory. If they can manage 4-2 down the stretch, they may well still see some playoff football in their future.
Bryan: Last week, Andrew and I made not one, not two, but five combined picks on the Jaguars and Texans. We never claimed we were smart.
Records to Date:
Andrew: Football, at its most basic, is about matchups. The Chargers have a terrible run defense. Joe Mixon just ran all over and through the Steelers, who are significantly better in that area. If the Chargers sell out to stop Mixon, then Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd can and will take advantage. I'm still not fully on board the Bengals bandwagon, but they have the quarterback, the targets, and the run game to make this a very tough day for Brandon Staley and company. Cincinnati (-3) over the L.A. Chargers.
Bryan: I'm taking New Orleans (+4.5) over the Cowboys on Thursday, in a game where both teams need to get back on track. As of press time, we're not sure who will be under center for the Saints, but it's looking more and more like Taysom Hill, which may provide the spark the New Orleans offense has needed that Trevor Siemian just hasn't given them. They'll also have Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram back, so that makes three rushing threats of various caliber in the backfield. That will allow them to control the ball more, run clock, shorten the game, allow their fifth-ranked defense to keep them in things. I'm not fully convinced it will be enough to pull off the upset, but I like it to be closer than the betting public thinks.
Double Survival League
Records to Date:
Andrew: DAL, JAX, LAC, MIA, NO, NYJ, PHI, SEA, TB, TEN
Bryan: ATL, BUF, CAR, CHI, IND, NYJ, PHI, SF, TB, TEN
Andrew: Despite the victory over Houston last week, the second time already that the Jets have ruined my picks after their victory over the Bengals earlier in the season, the Jets are firmly amid the ranks of the bad teams who are more interested in draft season than postseason. The Philadelphia Eagles still retain postseason aspirations, even after losing to the Giants in a terrible game last time out. They'll win on their second visit to the Meadowlands in as many weekends, getting me back on track.
Also getting back on track: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who lost a couple of games either side of their bye week but have since blown out a bad Giants team and overcome a solid Colts outfit in Indianapolis. They now travel to play a considerably less solid Falcons squad, having already dismantled them 48-25 in Week 2. This should be as straightforward as it gets for the rest of their season.
Bryan: By Immutable Scramble Law, we share a pick again—I, too, am taking the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Of the 10 teams I have left, they are by a fairly wide margin the most likely to win this week, as they continue to steamroll through an increasingly bad-looking NFC South. That won't help me catch up, but I do need wins, and I'm not confident in anyone as much as I am Brady beating the shambling remains of the Falcons this week.
But they were just my second pick—I first had circled the Indianapolis Colts. Back in Week 6, you took them to beat the Houston Texans; a wise choice as they ended up romping to the tune of 31-3. So, to be crazy and contrary, I'm taking them to beat ... the Houston Texans. Maybe by not quite as much, considering Tyrod Taylor is an upgrade over Davis Mills, and the fact that they're playing in Houston and not Indy but, I mean, c'mon. Any week you can pick against the Texans is probably a good one.