By Don Banks | Dec. 21, 2018
A few thoughts and observations in sizing up the final two weeks of the NFL’s 2018 regular season and how the playoff bracket is shaping up with 32 games remaining on the schedule:
Don’t Count Out Pats
How the Patriots have lost the past two weeks has been so utterly uncharacteristic of them that we have had no choice but to be stunned by the turn of events. But as the entire NFL world wonders if the magic has finally ended in Foxboro, keep in mind New England is only two home wins — against Buffalo (5-9) and the Jets (4-10) — plus a Houston loss at Philadelphia away from reclaiming the No. 2 seed and the first-round bye many had them pegged for most of the year.
And at that point, all that would stand between the Patriots and their eighth consecutive trip to the AFC Championship Game is a home win in the divisional round, maybe against the likes of Pittsburgh or Houston. That’s not exactly a daunting proposition for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, even without the services of just-suspended receiver Josh Gordon. They might be able to win a divisional-round home game on mere muscle memory alone.
But two losses in December for New England is a shock, no matter how you cut it. After beating Minnesota in Week 13, the Patriots stood 65-13 in December in the Belichick era. Now they’re 65-15. But let’s not make the mistake of assuming the losses in Miami and Pittsburgh mean New England has absolutely no shot to return to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in five years.
Have any recent Super Bowl champions lost multiple games in December and shook them off to go on to win it all? Quite a few, actually, including the 2006 Colts, the 2007 Giants, the 2009 Saints, the 2010 Packers, the 2011 Giants, the 2012 Ravens, the 2013 Seahawks and the 2015 Broncos. And some of those teams were wild-card entries or No. 3 or No. 4 seeds, meaning they had to go on the road and win multiple games in January — a fate that may not wind up befalling the Patriots, even though they’re currently the AFC’s third seed.
The results of the next two weeks could dramatically change the narrative once again in New England. Or it could serve to underline the impending sense of doom and finality in a season that has suddenly gone south. We’re just all going to have to wait to find out which one it is.
The Rams and Chargers are both going to the playoffs, making Los Angeles the rather unexpected center of the NFL universe in 2018. They’re both 11-3 and have real shots at first-round byes, but it feels like they’re definitely headed in opposite directions as the playoffs approach.
The Rams started 8-0 but have gone 3-3 since, with big-game losses to the Saints, Bears and most recently the Eagles at home, with all three teams perhaps joining them in the NFC playoffs. The Chargers, with no real home-field advantage in their soccer stadium in Carson, started 1-2 but have won their biggest games of late, upsetting the Steelers in Pittsburgh and the Chiefs in Arrowhead.
If they win in Week 17 at Denver, the Chargers will have won in five different time zones this season (including London), which figures to prepare them well for an on-the-road playoff run if they’re the No. 5 seed.
While the Jets and Giants have made the playoffs in the same season five different times in the Super Bowl era, between the years of 1981 and 2006, Los Angeles hasn’t had a pair of playoff teams since the Rams and Raiders went to the postseason simultaneously three years in a row from 1983-85, with the Raiders winning one Super Bowl in that span.
With the Raiders once again in franchise limbo and preparing to bid farewell to the Coliseum against Denver on Christmas eve, and the 49ers in the final stages of wrapping up a disappointing and injury-marred 4-10 season, the success stories in Los Angeles are leading the way in California.
Saints Smooth As a Mercedes
The 12-2 Saints can win the NFC’s top seed with one more victory, either this week at home against Pittsburgh or next week at home against the reeling Carolina Panthers. And that’s huge for the NFL’s ultimate dome-loving team, because it means they wouldn’t have to play outside or on the road the rest of the season.
Besides having two home games remaining in Weeks 16-17, the Saints would be home in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for both of their possible playoff games, and then traveling the short distance to Atlanta and another indoor setting for Super Bowl LIII in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where they won 43-37 in overtime in Week 3. (The Mercedes-Benz factor multiplied!)
The Saints in the Sean Payton coaching era are 5-0 at home in the playoffs and 1-5 on the road, not including their neutral site win in the Super Bowl in the 2009 season. And it bears repeating that being a No. 1 seed has meant almost always reaching the Super Bowl in recent years. Nine of the 10 teams in the last five Super Bowls were No. 1 seeds, and 12 of 18 dating to the 2009 season. So get ready for your arch-rivals in Atlanta, Falcons fans, because the Saints are coming. Probably.
Tough Road for Ravens
Of the 12 teams currently in possession of a playoff seed, I’m convinced Baltimore has the toughest final two weeks. If the Ravens (8-6) make the playoffs, they’ll have earned it, traveling to play the 11-3 and well-rested Chargers in Los Angeles this Saturday night, then finishing at home against a much-improved Browns team that figures to stand 7-7-1 entering Week 17.
If Cleveland beats visiting Cincinnati this week, as expected, the Browns will have won five out of seven since firing coach Hue Jackson at midseason, and they’ll be able to favorably match the accomplishments of their own rookie quarterback, Baker Mayfield, with any of the heroics Baltimore rookie passer Lamar Jackson has managed.
AFC’s Old and New
If New England, Pittsburgh and Kansas City all hang on and win their respective divisions, it’ll be the same old, same old in the AFC, because it’ll be the third year in a row that particular threesome entered the playoffs as division champs together. Given that all three made the playoffs in 2015 as well — when the Chiefs and Steelers were wild-card entries — half of the AFC’s postseason field has remained unchanged since 2015.
And there’s more. In 2014, the Patriots and Steelers made the playoffs as division winners while the Chiefs just missed out on a wild-card at 9-7, and in 2013, New England and Kansas City were in the AFC field, while Pittsburgh was one game out of the money at 8-8.
But the AFC playoff bracket will have some new blood in that the Chargers haven’t made the postseason since 2013, the Texans last qualified in 2016 and if the Ravens make it, it’ll be their first berth since 2014. That was the last year the Colts were in the playoffs as well. If Tennessee advances, it’ll be the Titans’ first back-to-back playoff trips since 2007-08, in the Jeff Fisher era.
NFC’s Old and New
The same ratio of three holdover/three newcomers will likely hold in the NFC field as well. New Orleans, the Rams and Vikings are currently in position to make consecutive playoff trips, while Dallas, Chicago and Seattle sat out last year’s postseason. Philadelphia could replace Minnesota in the No. 6 seed, and in that case the Eagles would avoid becoming the first defending Super Bowl champion to miss the playoffs since Denver in 2016, and the first NFC Super Bowl winner to miss out since the Giants in 2012.
Of the projected quarterback contingent in the playoffs, you can say this much already: It’s going to be a pretty darn good one.
Four Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks are likely to be at work in January, two in each conference: New England’s Tom Brady and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger in the AFC; New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Seattle’s Russell Wilson in the NFC. And that number would swell to five if the Eagles make the NFC field, and super-sub Nick Foles continues to start for Philadelphia.
And that’s not even the headline highlight of the group. In the AFC, youth would be served with MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes and Houston’s Deshaun Watson and possibly even Baltimore rookie Lamar Jackson all making their first career playoff starts. If it’s Tennessee as a wild-card qualifier, Marcus Mariota would be making back-to-back playoff trips and shooting for his second career postseason win.
Or if you like the veteran set, 15th-year Chargers star Philip Rivers will return to the playoffs at age 37, for the first time in five years. If things break right for Indianapolis, Andrew Luck and the Colts will be in the tournament, with Luck completing his superb comeback season by making his first trip to the postseason since 2014.
In the NFC, the young gun crowd 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, trying to erase the sting of their one-and-done playoff trips in 2017 and 2016, respectively.
And lastly, if Minnesota prevails and holds onto its No. 6 seed, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, he of the $84 million free-agent deal, would have at least led his team to the playoffs in his first season in town. Cousins has just one career playoff start, a first-round home loss to Green Bay for Washington in 2015.
• Unlike last year, when Buffalo snapping its 17-season playoff drought made them the biggest feel-good story in the 12-team postseason field, the Bears are the closest thing to a sentimental favorite this time around. Chicago last made the playoffs in 2010, and ended a seven-season slump in winning the NFC North.
* If Baltimore can pull the upset against the Chargers Saturday night, thereby dramatically boosting its chances to win the AFC North, the Ravens might just be punching their ticket for a rematch with Los Angeles in the first round of the playoffs.
Only this time it’d be at home and the Chargers would be the ones who would have to travel cross-country for the game. The Ravens would be the No. 4 seed if they win the division, and would play host to the No. 5 seed in the first round, which would be the Chargers unless they overtake Kansas City and claim the AFC West.
* And as happens from time to time when the schedule breaks this way, there could also be a Week 17-first round of the playoffs rematch in the NFC. Chicago is at Minnesota next week in the regular-season finale, but the two NFC North rivals could meet for the third time this season — in the span of eight games — in the first round of the playoffs.
If the Bears finish as the No. 3 seed and the Vikings earn the No. 6 spot, Minnesota would travel back to Soldier Field on the weekend of Jan. 5-6, where they lost to Chicago 25-20 on Sunday Night Football in Week 11.