NFL

The Debrief: Colts, Titans, Steelers jockeying for playoff position

Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on the playoff picture as we turn from Week 16 to Week 17.

The Steelers are good enough to almost beat the NFL’s top team on the road. The Steelers are bad enough to miss the playoffs entirely. Mike Tomlin’s enigmatic squad is symbolic of a league where one play so often separates a championship contender from an also-ran. The Steelers couldn’t make that one play Sunday in the Superdome.

Pittsburgh’s blown fourth-quarter lead over the Saints was extra painful because of other Week 16 results. Wins by the Titans and Colts blocked any route for the Steelers to make the playoffs as a wild-card team. Baltimore’s victory over the Chargers in Los Angeles on Saturday night helped the Ravens take control of the AFC North, with the Ravens needing a win over the Browns in Week 17 to win the division and send the Steelers home before the tournament starts for the first time since 2013.

That has to grate on Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, who proved again they are capable of taking over a game against any team, as they did in New Orleans, connecting 14 times for 185 yards and two scores. Had the Steelers stopped the Saints on a fourth-and-2 play at the two-minute warning, or if the Steelers hadn’t fumbled two times in scoring position, they could have been in line for a home playoff game in an AFC field where every team has flaws.

The gap between the top seeds and the rest of the field feels smaller than ever, with this being a rare year in which all 12 playoff teams have a legitimate chance to win a title. In this week’s Debrief, let’s take a look at the playoff picture for each conference, breaking down what each contending team has at stake in Week 17 and beyond.

AFC

1) Kansas City Chiefs (11-4): Patrick Mahomes and friends still have a strong grip on homefield advantage for the AFC playoffs despite Sunday night’s slip-up in Seattle. They can clinch the No. 1 seed with a win over the Raiders in Week 17. An unforgivable loss against Oakland, however, would open the door for the Chargers, Patriots or even Texans to climb into the top spot, with Kansas City potentially falling to the No. 5 seed.

The flaws of the Chiefs — who have gone 2-3 in their last five games — are more apparent on the road. It was telling that coach Andy Reid used Sunday night’s game to test drive young cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Tremon Smith. It was worth a shot, but it’s a bad sign that Kansas City is still scrambling to find a workable secondary in Week 16, with Russell Wilson throwing for 271 yards and three touchdowns. Mahomes can make a final closing statement for his MVP case against the Raiders, while his primary competition, Drew Brees, likely rests in Week 17.

2) New England Patriots (10-5): They have never needed a bye so badly. Houston’s loss in Philadelphia on Sunday allowed the Patriots to regain the No. 2 spot in the AFC, with an outside chance to climb to No. 1 in Week 17. New England’s workmanlike 24-12 victory over the Bills gave the Patriots a record-setting 10th straight playoff spot and tied the 49ers’ mark of 16 straight seasons with 10-plus wins. A week off could help some of the team’s hobbled elder statesmen get some much needed time to recuperate.

It’s remarkable that the Patriots have won so many games with such a flawed team. Their passing game hit a new low Sunday, with Tom Brady antsy under pressure and Rob Gronkowski being a liability again. While the Patriots are a far better team at home — where they are 7-0 — even beating the Jets in Foxborough in Week 17 doesn’t feel like a lock, because of New York QB Sam Darnold’s recent play (594 passing yards, five TDs and zero INTs in his last two games). To put it another way: Are the Patriots built to survive in a shootout?

3) Houston Texans (10-5): Despite clinching a playoff spot, the Texans had a rough Sunday. Their loss to the Eagles knocked them down to the No. 3 seed and kept the AFC South up for grabs. The Texans need to win over the Jaguars next week, or they will fall out of the top position in the division — supplanted by the winner of Titans-Colts — and to the No. 6 seed as a wild-card team.

Already thin on playmakers going into Week 16, the Texans lost wideout Demaryius Thomas to injury. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that it is believed Thomas tore his Achilles tendon. Cornerbacks Kareem Jackson and Kayvon Webster also were hurt for a group suddenly limping to the finish line after winning nine straight from Week 4 to Week 13.

4) Baltimore Ravens (9-6): No AFC contender had a better weekend. Their victory over the Chargers in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh’s loss have positioned the Ravens to get a rematch against Philip Rivers in the Wild Card Round, this time in Baltimore. The Ravens have a tricky Week 17 matchup against the streaking Browns, who already beat Baltimore in Week 5.

That was a different Ravens team, though. This group has established an unshakeable identity on offense, while the defense has become the toughest to prepare for in football. Rivers (who threw for 181 yards, zero TDs and two picks while getting sacked four times) didn’t know where pressure was coming from on Saturday night — he just knew that it was coming. Ravens fans will remember that they were in a similarly advantageous position heading into Week 17 last year and blew it against Cincinnati. If Baltimore were to lose to the Browns, John Harbaugh’s group would likely would fall right out of the playoffs.

5) Los Angeles Chargers (11-4): Saturday’s loss may have hurt a little more after watching the Chiefs lose on Sunday night. The Chargers could have jumped to the No. 1 seed, but they should still be motivated to win next weekend in Denver, just in case the Chiefs collapse against Oakland. If the Chiefs get a big lead early, the Chargers may be tempted to rest starters, with a potential playoff rematch against the Ravens or Steelers coming soon.

The matchup in Denver could also provide a stiff test for a Chargers offensive line that is showing cracks.

6) Indianapolis Colts (9-6): It’s win-and-in next Sunday night in Tennessee for the Colts, a team that was once 1-5. Any team with eight wins in its last nine games has to be taken seriously as a title contender; it’s as if the whole season has been a fourth-quarter comeback for Andrew Luck. The Colts can still win the AFC South with a win and a Texans loss.

7) Tennessee Titans (9-6): The Titans face the same scenario as the Colts. It’s unclear if Marcus Mariota — who left Saturday’s win over Washington with a shoulder stinger — will be available to play on Sunday night. If not, the Titans will need a vintage Blaine Gabbert performance to avoid their third straight 9-7 finish.

8) Pittsburgh Steelers (8-6-1): They aren’t done quite yet. A win over the Jeff Driskel-led Bengals and a Ravens loss to the dangerous Browns would give Pittsburgh the No. 4 seed and an AFC North title. In that scenario, they would host the AFC West runner-up. In the other, more likely scenario, Mike Tomlin will have to answer questions about perhaps the most frustrating end to a season in a decade full of such finishes.

NFC

1) New Orleans Saints (13-2): Sunday’s stirring win over the Steelers — featuring some incredible quick-decision throws by Drew Brees under pressure — clinched the No. 1 seed. With Week 17’s matchup against the Panthers being played in New Orleans, homefield advantage locked up through the playoffs and Super Bowl LIII set for Atlanta’s domed venue, the Saints won’t play outdoors again this season, no matter what happens. While nothing is official yet, the expectation in New Orleans is that Brees and several Saints star players could sit out the season finale against Carolina. Brees wasn’t even active in 2009 in a similar scenario. Teddy Time awaits.

2) Los Angeles Rams (12-3): The Rams’ offense dominated the Cardinals even without banged-up stud running back Todd Gurley, racking up 33 first downs and 461 yards. Unlike Week 17 of last year, when Gurley, Jared Goff, Aaron Donald and others rested ahead of the postseason, the Rams will be motivated to win their 2018 finale against the 49ers. A victory over the feisty Fightin’ Shanahans would clinch the No. 2 seed and a playoff bye. A loss would open the door for the Bears to pass them.

Considering the Rams’ offensive struggles before facing Arizona, coach Sean McVay will also want to engineer another positive performance by Goff before the playoffs start.

3) Chicago Bears (11-4): The Bears face an awkward dilemma in Minnesota in Week 17: Go all out to help knock out the Vikings, or set up a potential rematch with Minnesota in Chicago in the Wild Card Round? I see the Bears as a mostly young team with a lot to work on offensively. Staying sharp and trying to win in a playoff-like atmosphere while ending the season of a division rival sounds like a challenge coach Matt Nagy would embrace.

A Bears win in Minnesota coupled with a Rams loss to the 49ers would also give the Bears the No. 2 seed in the NFC, essentially advancing them a round in the playoffs. It seems insanely risky to pass on that opportunity, even if it’s a long shot. The 49ers’ strong run of recent play, witnessed in person by the Bears on Sunday, is another reason to believe the No. 2 seed is still up for grabs.

4) Dallas Cowboys (9-6): Sunday’s victory over the Bucs was typical of this Cowboys season. They clinched the NFC East with a pair of scores set up by the defense, while the offense stayed out of the way in a close game. Dallas’ last six wins have been by one score. The Cowboys have only one win all season by more than one score, back in Week 6 against the Jaguars. Jason Garrett will be tempted to rest his starters against the Giants in Week 17 because the Cowboys are locked in to the No. 4 seed, with the Seahawks being their most likely Wild Card Round opponent.

5) Seattle Seahawks (9-6): The win against the Chiefs proved again that Seattle can compete with any team. It also clinched Pete Carroll’s seventh playoff spot in nine seasons with the Seahawks. A win against the Cardinals next week in Arizona would clinch the No. 5 seed and a trip to Dallas. The Seahawks already beat the Cowboys in Dallas this season and should do whatever possible to avoid a trip to Chicago in the Wild Card Round.

6) Minnesota Vikings (8-6-1): The Vikings are closing strong, with two of their most convincing wins of the season coming after coach Mike Zimmer fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. The Vikings need to beat the Bears in Week 17 or have the Eagles lose to the Redskins to clinch a playoff berth. A win over the Bears and a Seahawks loss would bump the Vikings up to the No. 5 seed. There’s a strong chance that the Vikings could have to play the Bears in back-to-back weeks, not unlike in 2012, when the Leslie Frazier-led team beat the Packers to make the playoffs, then lost to them the following week in the playoffs.

7) Philadelphia Eagles (8-7): Nick Foles Season is the best season. After Foles’ stirring game-winning drive against the Texans, the Eagles need to win in Washington next week and get some help with a Bears win in Minnesota. It seems somehow fitting that the NFC’s two best teams from a year ago are fighting for the last spot in this year’s playoffs, highlighting once again how precarious a spot near the top of the league is. Then again, whichever team earns that No. 6 spot will do so by playing its best ball of the year, with full belief that another playoff run could be around the corner. Even in the NFC, the top seeds and the wild-card teams are closer than they appear.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.


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