By Don Banks | December 7, 2017 10:00 am PT
That low, steady sound you heard emanating from Week 14 in the NFL was one of things tightening, as almost all the weekend’s results and events served to make the division and wild-card races closer and even more interesting as the final three weeks of the regular season loom.
Very little got settled in Week 14, and even one of the two races that were clinched — the 11-2 Eagles wrapped up the NFC East — included a cruel twist that casts the entire NFC power structure in a new light going forward. Quarterback Carson Wentz’s likely season-ending knee injury in Philadelphia was a seismic development in the NFL, with the Eagles losing their biggest star, league MVP candidate the catalyst for what has been a very special season thus far in southeast Pennsylvania.
With solid if unspectacular veteran backup Nick Foles replacing Wentz, every other NFC Super Bowl contender now sees a postseason field perhaps devoid of any clear-cut favorite. With all of them owning between eight and 10 wins, the Vikings, Rams, Saints, Panthers, Falcons all have reason to ask “Why not us?’’ as the season heads down the back stretch. For that matter, so do the Seahawks, Packers, Lions or Cowboys, providing they can manage to scratch their way into the six-team NFC bracket.
While the Patriots with a win tonight in Miami can increase the division-clinching quotient and claim their 27th AFC East title in a row (a slight exaggeration), there’s still drama to be had around the rest of the conference. Here’s where things stand and what stakes are on the line in Week 15, as we prepare for three monster showdowns between playoff contenders, and a handful of other meaningful games:
*The Rams’ 43-35 loss at home to the Eagles on Sunday took away any cushion they might have built as they prepare to travel to second-place Seattle in the NFC West’s game of the year next Sunday, and concurrently lessened the impact of the Seahawks’ 30-24 loss at Jacksonville.
Yes, Seattle (8-5) is currently the No. 7 seed and would miss the playoffs as things stand today. But with a home win against Los Angeles (9-4), all would be right in Pete Carroll’s world, because the Seahawks would be back in first place and sitting no worse than the fourth seed in the NFC. Having beaten the Rams in Los Angeles in Week 5, a tie for the division lead is as good as a win for Seattle, and that makes next Sunday feel like it’s for all the marbles.
One team will be in position for a first-round home game and stay in the fight for a first-round playoff bye, while the other will be staring down the wild-card route that has not been particularly kind to upstarts in recent years. A wild-card qualifier hasn’t made the Super Bowl since the 2010 Packers won it all.
* The Chargers at Chiefs Saturday night showdown couldn’t possibly hold any more significance as well. First-place in the AFC West will be on the line, and the winner will take a huge step toward winning the division. If the comeback continues for the Carson Chargers (7-6), and they win their fifth in a row and eighth in the past 10 games, Los Angeles will hold a one-game lead with two weeks remaining.
If Kansas City (7-6) defends its house at Arrowhead, as it did in comfortable fashion Sunday against the Raiders, the Chiefs will own what amounts to a two-game advantage over the Chargers by virtue of their series sweep. They will also be at least one game ahead of Oakland (6-7), even if the Raiders get back to .500 by knocking off visiting Dallas next Sunday night.
So Kansas City can go a long ways toward winning its second consecutive division title by beating the surging Chargers, and you know why that’s pretty heady stuff? Because it’s never happened before in Kansas City franchise history, even when they were the AFL’s Dallas Texans from 1960-62.
But if Los Angeles wins, the Chargers will continue their amazing turnaround after that 0-4 start, seizing control of the AFC West and setting up a scenario where their first year in L.A. could turn into their first playoff trip since 2013 and their first division crown since 2009.
* We’ve seen the game of the year in the AFC coming for weeks and weeks now, but it’s finally here: New England at Pittsburgh, for the inside track to own the conference’s top seed and home-field advantage in January. Shoot, even Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has been publicly taking aim at the Patriots of late, and that was before his club won those slugfests against the division rival Bengals and Ravens in the span of six days, clinching the AFC North for the third time in four years in the process.
If New England beats the Dolphins Monday night, both the Patriots and Steelers will enter their showdown 11-2 and the lines will be clearly drawn. But even if the Patriots should lose in Miami, they could still take over the lead for the No. 1 seed with a win in Pittsburgh, via the head-to-head tiebreaker. So Sunday’s marquee matchup will have the huge implications we presumed it would, no matter what.
* The exquisite three-team battle that is the NFC South deserves special mention all its own. The Saints (9-4), Panthers (9-4) and Falcons (8-5) all did their part in Week 14 to draw things closer, and now a single game separates them in the standings with three weeks remaining. It’d be almost a shame if this division didn’t qualify three teams for the playoffs.
There are no head-to-head NFC South encounters in Week 15, because those are still ahead in Weeks 16 and 17. But this week still offers plenty of pressure, with the Panthers getting a visiting from the streaking Packers (7-6), in what might be Aaron Rodgers’ celebrated return to the Green Bay lineup, and the Saints and Falcons both needing to take care of business and dispatch losing opponents.
New Orleans stays home to take on a 5-8 Jets team that might be starting Bryce Petty at quarterback in place of the injured Josh McCown, and Atlanta goes on the road to play Monday night at the Buccaneers (4-9), who seemingly are just counting down the days until their underachievement and misery ends.
The Saints still have the upper hand in the race to win the division, but given their loss last Thursday night in Atlanta, New Orleans’ home game against the Falcons on Christmas Eve is potentially pivotal.