AROUND THE NFL

If The Season Ended Today –

 

Pittsburgh fell from the 2nd seed to 4th in Week 12.  Big wins for the Ravens and Colts, now the leading contenders for the final playoff spot with Denver and Cleveland now part of the conversation.

                                                                Div            Conf

Kansas City                 West    9-2           3-0             7-1

New England               East    8-3           3-0              6-2

Houston                       South  8-3           3-1              6-2

Pittsburgh                    North   7-3-1        3-1-1          4-3-1

LA Chargers                WC      8-3           2-2             5-2

Baltimore                     WC      6-5            2-3            6-3

Indianapolis                             6-5            2-1            5-4

Miami                                      5-6            2-1             4-3

Cincinnati                                5-6            1-3             3-4

Denver                                     5-6           2-2             3-5

Tennessee                               5-6           2-2             3-6

Cleveland                                 4-6-1       2-1-1          3-4-1

 

New England has a head-to-head win over Houston and will control that tiebreaker going forward.

 

NFC NORTH

 

DETROIT

Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com was watching jeopardy and the Lions popped up:

 

The category was brutal enough, but if the Detroit Lions were looking to add some frustration to another season gone wrong in decades worth of them, all they had to do was turn on the television Monday night.

 

If they found the quiz show “Jeopardy!,” they were in for a bit more anguish, courtesy of legendary show host Alex Trebek. In the category “Predictions by 2030,” the $600 clue was “As of 2018, this NFC North team had never even made the Super Bowl, much less won it. But by 2030? Gotta happen, right?”

 

The answer, of course, is “Who are the Detroit Lions?”

– – –

Eric Adelson of YahooSports.com takes a long look at QB MATTHEW STAFFORD:

 

Detroit Lions fans have a unique indignity facing them as December arrives.

 

The co-leader in touchdown receptions in the NFL is Eric Ebron.

 

The tight end who was intensely disliked by the diehards in Detroit is a star in Indianapolis, on his way to a likely Pro Bowl bid while his former team sputters along with an offense that scares no one. The Lions have 17 passing touchdowns, compared to Ebron’s 11 scores.

 

The rationales are easy to muster. Ebron now has Colts offensive guru Frank Reich, while last year he had the uninspiring Jim Bob Cooter. Ebron is getting more attention now from Andrew Luck, while in years past there were other options like Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and even Kenny Golladay. And there is the tried-and-not-necessarily-true “Lions culture” excuse, which is the vague notion that the Detroit franchise is in a permanent state of rot and talented people don’t excel until they get out.

 

There’s one issue, however, that is harder for people in Michigan to consider: Ebron now has a better quarterback.

 

Matthew Stafford is a likable guy with a great arm, but as his career goes on it’s harder and harder to figure out what else makes him transcendent. On Thanksgiving he threw two key interceptions to lose at home on a short week to a Chicago Bears team led by Chase Daniel. That’s hard to explain away, especially in what was basically a must-win situation. Yes, the Lions were without several offensive weapons, but they had the best one on the field, by far. And that weapon was the one that failed in the moment of truth. That’s loss No. 7 for Detroit, when it should have been win No. 5.

 

You can’t blame Stafford for Ebron’s drops – which are still an issue – but who has come through Detroit and become significantly better with Stafford? Jones’ best career touchdown mark came in Cincinnati. Tate’s top single-season touchdown total came in Seattle. Calvin Johnson would have starred anywhere. And now Ebron has as many touchdowns in Indianapolis as he had in his entire career in Detroit.

 

In today’s NFL, most elite quarterbacks can give receivers extra cushion with either their minds or their feet. Brady moves the pocket. Rodgers and Russell Wilson extend the play. Cam Newton can tuck it and run. Brees isn’t as mobile anymore, but he scans the field and fools defensive backs like no one else in the sport.

 

Stafford is paid $135 million over five years to excel in the way those others do. He hasn’t. And now there are a bushel of young quarterbacks who are on their way to the playoffs: Pat Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and this weekend’s Lions opponent, Jared Goff.

 

There’s almost a tradition in Detroit to lay blame with everyone other than the franchise quarterback. Stafford has had some majestic comebacks. He is as tough as anyone physically, shaking off even injuries that seem devastating. He took over after the 0-16 season, and he has given back to the community he has adopted. And he has pinball stats, including a 5,000-yard season in 2011.

 

It’s easier to blame the Ford Family, which has been ineffective at creating a winning environment for decades. It’s easier to blame the coach, whether the irascible Jim Schwartz, the staid Jim Caldwell or the beard-scratching Matt Patricia. It’s easier to blame any of the offensive coordinators along the way.

 

But none of those people play. Stafford has never won the crucial game, and he won’t be winning one this season either. The Lions are all but done this year. Stafford will be 31 in February. In three career playoff games, he has zero wins, four touchdowns, and three interceptions. The only playoff game that was close was in Dallas, where the Lions led at halftime and lost (in part because of referee gaffes). Forbes has Stafford ranked as the 10th highest paid athlete in the world, right in front of Kevin Durant. Matthew Stafford is not Kevin Durant. He’s closer to Carmelo Anthony.

 

There’s certainly the old familiar stat of how the Lions went nearly five years without a 100-yard rusher. Kerryon Johnson broke that streak this season against the New England Patriots, who the Lions beat convincingly. But the Lions have aggressively tried to help Stafford in the backfield. They went and got Reggie Bush. They drafted Ameer Abdullah. They picked up LeGarrette Blount. They have completely rebuilt their offensive line. And Ebron was a big part of that effort. Instead of going for Aaron Donald in the first round of the 2014 draft, they got Stafford a huge target with speed. Now, this Sunday, they will be facing Donald, and Stafford will be staring his team’s decision square in the face.

 

Meanwhile, prioritizing Stafford’s welfare has cost the team on defense. The depth hasn’t been there for years, despite the efforts of Glover Quin and Darius Slay. And it’s hard to invest in big names on defense when so much money is spent on the big name on offense.

 

It’s curious that Stafford hasn’t reacted much in public to the growing criticism, or the losing. He’s fiery at times on the sideline, and he’s a warrior in the last two minutes of a game, but other than that he’s fairly unanimated. There have been several times this season and in years past when a well-placed public rant from the franchise leader may have helped. Ebron, for example, was booed mercilessly throughout his career. Would a hell-raising lecture from Stafford to the fan base have changed anything? We’ll never know.

 

Stafford isn’t Ryan Tannehill, Blake Bortles or Jameis Winston. He has been durable. He has been stellar at times. He has been the face of the franchise the Lions desperately needed after the 2008 winless embarrassment. But after several coordinators and coaches, the Lions are still an also-ran. At some point, hard as it may be, the Lions have to ask themselves if $135 million in salary should buy more than a participation trophy.

 

NFC EAST

 

NEW YORK GIANTS

Jordan Raanan of ESPN.com contemplates the ELI MANNING end game:

 

Eli Manning has made 225 career starts at quarterback for the New York Giants. There are likely to be at least a few more.

 

How many?

 

That is the decision the Giants organization faces as it makes the awkward transition away from the Manning era, which dates back to 2004. It was already botched last season with his one-game benching in favor of Geno Smith. That halted his consecutive-games streak at 210 and prompted public outcry. He was eventually reinstated as the starter and brought back for at least one more season.

 

That hasn’t gone particularly well. The Giants (3-8) are among the league’s worst teams, and Manning has struggled throughout large parts of this season behind an offensive line that has had trouble pass protecting. He will remain the starter for at least one more week and likely more.

 

Coach Pat Shurmur named Manning the starter for Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears. Manning expects to start “until I’m told not to.” That could be at some point later this season or after next season. He has one more year remaining on his contract at $17 million. It includes a $23.2 million salary-cap hit for 2019.

 

The Giants can get out of the deal if they so please, save $17 million in cap space, eat a digestible $6.2 million in dead money and turn the page on a legendary career that included two Super Bowl titles but didn’t end particularly well. This is destined to be the sixth time in seven seasons the Giants and Manning have missed the playoffs.

 

Cutting Manning is one of their options. It’s not the only one.

 

One more year!

All indications to date have been that Manning would like to continue playing. And he would like to do it with the Giants. He has a family with three young daughters and their life is in New Jersey.

 

Undoubtedly, Manning would like his playing career to end on a more positive note than the past two years. Maybe general manager Dave Gettleman sees the Carolina and Tampa Bay games this season in the same light as he did the Eagles game in 2017? “It was not a mirage,” Gettleman said of that Philadelphia performance in Week 15 of last season, when Manning completed 37 of 57 passes for 434 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.

 

Gettleman has not commented publicly about his quarterback’s play this season, but it’s possible the Giants bring Manning back as their bridge quarterback or mentor to some younger options. They could also view him (right or wrong) as their best option for next season while the search continues to find their next franchise quarterback. One might not be available in the 2019 draft.

 

Regardless, Manning will be 38 years old in January. He’s not a long-term solution.

 

Manning’s return for another season would likely have to come with a pay cut. A $23.2 million cap figure isn’t crazy in today’s NFL, but it’s not anywhere near commensurate with Manning’s current skills or recent production. He’s on pace for 20 touchdowns and 13 turnovers while being sacked 55 times in a season where the Giants appear destined for a top-10 pick.

 

But a starting quarterback at $10 million or so might entice the Giants and Manning to go down this road one more time and hope for a different result.

 

Retirement

This would provide the easy out for the Giants, who haven’t been able to cut the cord yet even after beginning the process late last season. Manning can call it quits on a legendary career that will likely land him in the Hall of Fame. The Giants can seriously begin the process of developing a new identity. It seems necessary for both after they’ve been stuck in no-man’s land for years.

 

It doesn’t appear likely, though. Manning has shown no signs of a player who has lost his desire to compete.

 

“I want to play,” he said Monday when asked about the possibility of being mathematically eliminated and the Giants turning to rookie Kyle Lauletta or backup Alex Tanney at some point. “You all can speculate, you all can ‘what if.’ It’s not my decision.”

 

Manning would like continue playing this season and at least through the end of his contract. He’s talked in the past of playing into his 40s.

 

Play elsewhere

The Giants might decide to move on this season, but Manning might not. He might want to continue playing elsewhere, even if it’s just for a season or to prove them wrong.

 

The Jaguars and his former coach Tom Coughlin are going to be looking for a quarterback this offseason. Maybe they want to make one more run at it with their current group and Manning at the helm while they try to find a long-term solution. Maybe the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are willing to use him as a stopgap, or there is a team out there that finds him enticing for his name recognition. Manning can at least sell some jerseys for a franchise.

 

It’s unlikely at this point of his career and with his current price tag that there would be much trade value. Plus, he would have to agree to any move because there is a no-trade clause in his contract.

 

At most, Manning could bring back a late-round pick from a desperate team. So if he does land elsewhere, it will likely come after the Giants decide to move on and cut their Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

 

Nobody wants/backup

The markets for 38-year-old quarterbacks on the decline aren’t usually robust. It’s possible nobody wants to commit to Manning as their starter for 2019. At that point, he would be faced with a decision. Retire or go elsewhere as a backup.

 

The latter appears unlikely. Manning doesn’t need to chase another paycheck. He’s collected over $200 million from the Giants alone. He also doesn’t really need to chase a championship. He has two of those.

 

This would ultimately be the sad ending if it comes to Manning still wanting to play but being unwanted. It seems unlikely given the need for competent quarterbacks, but it’s one of the seemingly feasible options that could unfold over the next six months.

 

 

PHILADELPHIA

The Eagles are proud to have sprung some folks from jail so that they could have Thanksgiving with their families.  Tim McManus of ESPN.com:

 

Resources from an unprecedented agreement between the Players Coalition and the NFL to address social justice issues are starting to be distributed.

 

On the day before Thanksgiving, nine people were bailed out of jail in Philadelphia via a $50,000 grant from the Eagles Social Justice Fund, made up of money raised by the players and matched by the team.

 

Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and the Players Coalition followed that up by hosting a services fair on Monday and invited those nine people, to connect them with grassroots organizations that can help them moving forward.

 

“We recognize that the only reason that these people were in jail is because they couldn’t afford to get out. If any of them had the resources I did, they would be out,” Jenkins said. “So it’s not a matter of public safety or being convicted of a crime, which they haven’t yet, it’s just they’re simply too poor for their freedom.”

 

The Eagles Social Justice Fund has amassed close to $500,000 to date. Per the deal struck between the Players Coalition and the NFL last fall, funds are set up so the players on each team can donate up to $250,000, with the team matching up to that amount.

 

The Eagles have distributed $190,000 so far to four Philadelphia-area nonprofit organizations, including the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, Police Athletic League of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Opportunities Industrialization Center, and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.

 

Other teams, including the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, also have started the process of allocating their funds, according to a league source.

 

The Eagles created a social justice leadership council which includes six players — Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, Chris Long, Derek Barnett, Nelson Agholor and Michael Bennett — and five staff members in charge of setting up the structure of the fund and helping with the application process.

 

“There are teams across the country that I think have really taken this responsibility seriously and said, ‘We want to be a part of the solution,'” said Julie Hirshey, the Eagles’ director of community relations. “I know our players in particular, it was really important to them and to [CEO/Chairman] Jeffrey Lurie to be able to say that, ‘We want to give a voice to people who don’t necessarily have them. We have a voice, how can we lend that?’

 

“Players really led the way in fundraising and making sure that we got up to that max goal, and then really engaging in learning about the organizations that are impacting our region and making sure that the funds that we were going to give out really went to create an impact.”

 

The Players Coalition was formed by Jenkins and Anquan Boldin in 2017 to create a network for players across the league interested in criminal justice reform. Last fall, the coalition and the NFL reached an $89 million agreement to partner on a plan to address issues in the community.

 

Cash bail has been a primary focus of the Players Coalition. Surrounded by some of the city’s top influencers — including District Attorney Larry Krasner and Keir Bradford-Grey, chief of the Defender Association of Philadelphia — Jenkins held a news conference during Monday’s event. The Eagles’ rookies were in attendance as part of the team’s rookie development program, as was receiver Jordan Matthews.

 

Jenkins explained that their efforts with the nine individuals whose bail was posted can be used as “an example of success” that demonstrates “if you pour into and invest in people, they are less likely to commit an offense, they are more likely to sustain and become contributing citizens.”

 

Members of the coalition have attended bail hearings and met with experts in this field over the last year-plus to educate themselves on cash bail and mass incarceration — which Krasner calls “the civil rights issue of our time” — to figure out how to best use their platform to effect change.

 

“At 57 years of age, I remember there being good activity in society by athletes, but I cannot think of a stronger, more serious effort on the part of athletes to bring about social justice,” Krasner said of the Players Coalition. “I think it is wonderful that these players are stepping up, that the teams are stepping up, and I think it reflects an understanding on the part of the public that the sacrifice these players are making and these teams are making is for them.”

 

Interesting to note the lack of detail on the nine folks who were sprung.  They could range from misdemeanor drug users to violent crooks awaiting trial on felonies.  But no claim is made that they were unfairly incarcerated.

 

 

WASHINGTON

Frank Schwab on the injury to QB ALEX SMITH, which is surely career-threatening, if not career-ending:

 

The parallels between the injuries to Washington Redskins quarterbacks Joe Theismann and Alex Smith were strange. The injuries happened on the same day, 33 years apart. Theismann was in attendance for Smith’s injury. The final score of both games was 23-21.

 

Another scary possible connection: Theismann’s injury ended his career, and a report said the same could happen to Smith.

 

Theismann never played again after Lawrence Taylor’s sack in 1985 broke his leg. ESPN’s Adam Schefter said there’s optimism about Smith’s return to the playing field, which also means there’s a serious question about whether he’ll make it back.

 

Alex Smith suffered a massive injury

Smith broke his tibia and fibula, and suffered a compound fracture on a sack against the Houston Texans. The injury was so bad, CBS refused to show any more replays after it played once during the game broadcast.

 

Smith, like Theismann at the time of his injury, is in his mid-30s. He’ll turn 35 before next season. Smith is in great shape, and that’s going to help him. But, as Schefter wrote, his return to football is “not a certainty.”

 

Theismann retired in July of 1986 after he failed to pass a physical.

 

Smith’s contract puts Redskins in a tough spot

The Redskins put a six to eight month timetable on Smith’s recovery. There was no ligament damage, which helps.

 

It’s a tough spot for the Redskins, too. Smith was in the first year of a contract that reportedly gave him $71 million guaranteed, according to Spotrac. Washington can’t just get out of the deal right away.

 

It’ll be a nervous offseason for Washington and Smith. Nobody wants to see Smith’s career end that way, but he faces a long road back.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

TAMPA BAY

The Buccaneers and their fans liked the debut of JAMEIS WINSTON 4.0.  Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times:

 

It’s one game. One game against one of the worst teams in the NFL.

 

One game doesn’t prove Jameis Winston is suddenly listening to the better angel on his throwing shoulder. But the Bucs quarterback proved he is capable of protecting the football. He can play a clean game it he wants to. It doesn’t prevent him from making enough plays to win.

 

So what if he does it again?

 

Winston may not win enough of the final five games to assure the Bucs (4-7) a postseason spot. But what if he rises to the challenge Sunday of beating a very good Carolina defense, or the week after against the Saints, or goes into Baltimore and upsets the Ravens?

 

This has sort of always been the riddle wrapped in the enigma of Winston.

 

He flashes that bright smile, promises he will get it fixed this time, then goes out and turns you into a believer again.

 

So why can’t he just choose to play this way all the time?

 

“No player is going out there choosing not to play well,” coach Dirk Koetter said Monday. “No one chooses that. Jameis made good decisions with the football (Sunday). Played a clean game. We had a good result. We win the turnover margin. We get two takeaways. We don’t turn it over.

 

“That was a game where we only had six (explosive plays) on offense and we’re tied in the lead in the NFL for explosives and we had maybe our lowest total in the year,” Koetter added, referring to pass plays of 16 yards or more runs of at least 7 yards. ” I thought Jameis did what needed to be done. He made the plays and made really good scrambles.”

 

Of course, the Bucs have seen this before.

 

Winston went on a pretty good run during the Bucs’ five-game winning streak in 2016 during which he threw six touchdown passes and only three interceptions to breathe new life into what became a 9-7 season. At the time, he was throwing to Mike Evans, Adam Humphries and Cameron Brate but also was getting contributions from players like Freddie Martino and Cecil Shorts.

 

He was efficient, too, completing nearly 66 percent of his passes.

 

On Sunday, Winston was at his best when throwing on the move to his right in scramble plays that resulted in touchdowns to Brate and Humphries. Evans was a star, catching six of seven targets for 120 yards and a touchdown.

 

“They just kept getting open,” Winston said. “All of our receivers had a great game.”

 

All but DeSean Jackson, who caught only three of eight passes thrown his way for 19 yards. Jackson, who entered the game with a thumb injury, will see a hand specialist in New York Tuesday, Koetter said.

 

“I thought he made really good decisions,” Koetter said of Winston.  “He made decisive decisions. He didn’t hold it too long and he didn’t wait for plays to develop that might happen. As time went on, he took the sure thing when it was there and then Jameis also did an excellent job on scramble plays, making decisions outside the pocket whether to throw or run.”

 

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In a weird way, if Winston cleans up the turnovers and the Bucs win, shouldn’t this bode well for Koetter, too? After all, it proves his contention that the single biggest factor in the Bucs plight this season has been that his quarterbacks give the ball away.

 

The offense will finish as the best in franchise history, shattering marks for passing yards and total yards. The defense, even one that is historically bad, held a team to nine points by not having the offense put it in bad field position. The average drive start for the 49ers Sunday was their own 21-yard line.

 

So here the Bucs are at with Winston, on the corner of Franchise Quarterback and No. 1 Overall Bust.

 

There’s not a lot of great options in 2019 for the Bucs.

 

They’re willing enough to risk the $20.1-million fifth-year club option that is guaranteed only against injury to keep running Winston out there. That says something. Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Missouri’s Drew Lock and West Virginia’s Will Grier may all go in the first round but none are considered can’t miss NFL starters.

 

The best free agent may be Saints backup Teddy Bridgewater, but he hasn’t started a game since 2015.

 

Even if it may be getting too late to save the jobs of Koetter and his coaching staff, Winston has time to make a very good argument for himself.

 

The Panthers are 1-5 on the road this season. The Bucs already have beaten the Saints in New Orleans. The Ravens have won two in a row behind Lamar Jackson at quarterback, but he’s done it with his legs and not his arm.

 

There is a big game in Dallas two days before Christmas and the season finale at home against the Falcons, who may be playing for nothing at that point.

 

Winston? He has a lot to play for these last five games. One down, a career to go.

 

“There’s always a lot to play for,” Winston said. “We’ve always got to chase the dream, whether it’s making it into the playoffs, whether it’s one win at a time, we can never take anything for granted.”

 

Meanwhile, Jenna Laine of ESPN.com reports that Winston has paid to put the Uber incident behind him:

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston has reached a settlement with the woman known as “Kate P” who said he groped her in her Uber vehicle, according to court records obtained by ESPN.

 

The documents, filed by her attorney John Clune in U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona on Monday, state that the “parties are in the process of finalizing a settlement agreement” and that the process will be completed in approximately 10 days.

 

In a copy of the lawsuit provided to ESPN by Clune in September, the woman alleged that in March of 2016, while waiting in a drive-thru at Los Betos restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona, Winston “leaned toward [her] and placed his fingers between her legs and pressed them firmly against her vagina over her yoga pants.”

 

NFC WEST

 

SAN FRANCISCO

The bloom seems to be off the rose for QB NICK MULLINS (he could not direct the 49ers offense to double digits in points against Tampa Bay’s horrid defense), but he gets the start Sunday in Seattle.  Curtis Pashelka in the San Jose Mercury News:

 

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said Monday that Nick Mullens will be his starting quarterback will be for his team’s Week 13 game against the Seattle Seahawks.

 

“We’re playing this year out with (Mullens) and (C.J. Beathard) and we’ll see how games go,” Shanahan said. “We’re going to do everything we can to win a game. I know we’re preparing with Nick and if he ever struggled I’d bring in C.J. We’ll see how it goes.”

 

Mullens was underwhelming in his first road start Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, completing 18 of 32 passes for 221 yards in the 49ers’ 27-9 loss.

 

He threw one touchdown pass to Dante Pettis in the second quarter, but was also sacked four times and intercepted twice, with both picks coming in the fourth quarter when the game was largely out of reach. The 49ers were without receivers Marquise Goodwin (personal matter) and Pierre Garçon (knee injury) in the game.

 

Mullens, who took over the 49ers’ starting job in Week 9 when San Francisco beat the Raiders 34-3 on Nov. 1, is now 1-2 as a starter. In three games, Mullens has completed 61 of 93 passes for 773 yards and five touchdowns. Mullens also threw two interceptions in the 49ers’ 27-23 loss to the New York Giants on Nov. 12.

 

Shanahan said after the loss to Tampa Bay he wasn’t pleased with the performance offense, which finished with 342 total yards, its fourth-lowest output of the season. Still, the decision he made about who his starting quarterback will be Sunday wasn’t one he agonized over.

 

“I know that I said Nick didn’t play very well, but no one played well and I didn’t coach well. It was all of us,” Shanahan said. “Nick did a good job in his first two games. It was not the reason that happened yesterday so that’s not fair to do that to him.”

 

Beathard’s last start was against Arizona on Oct. 28, a 18-15 San Francisco loss. In that game, Beathard was 14 of 28 for 190 with one touchdown throw. Beathard has eight touchdown passes and seven interceptions in six games, five as a starter, this season. He’s also been sacked 18 times.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

While watching “Hard Knocks” in August, viewers picked up that Coach Hue Jackson wasn’t very demanding.  So did the Browns players.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield snubbed former Browns head coach and current Bengals assistant Hue Jackson after the Browns beat the Bengals on Sunday and made it clear that he wasn’t happy about Jackson joining a division rival.

 

Mayfield’s numbers have improved since Jackson and former offensive coordinator Todd Haley were fired and other Browns found other areas of improvement under interim head coach Gregg Williams. Linebacker Joe Schobert said Williams has “done a good job of keeping everybody refocused” while defensive end Chris Smith pointed to Williams’ “no excuses” policy as something that’s benefitted the team.

 

For his part, Williams said teams “crave discipline” and he’s worked to make that a significant part of the picture for the Browns. Center J.C. Tretter agrees with that approach.

 

“It’s something that we desperately needed,” Tretter said, via Ohio.com. “I think he’s really reined everybody in and got everybody focused on one single goal. I think his leadership has been very strong. He fires up the team. He’s got that personality.The rules and what’s expected of each person on the team when it comes to penalties and missed assignments and all these little things, they’re spelled out for you. There’s no confusion about what’s going on.”

 

No one directly referenced Jackson the way that Mayfield did on Sunday, but it’s hard to see signs that Browns players are pining for the old days.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

HOUSTON

With the help of a 97-yard run by RB LAMAR MILLER and 70 scrambling yards from QB DESHAUN WATSON, the Texans rushed for 281 yards on Monday night.  We thought sure it was the highest rushing total for a team this year, but we were wrong.  And we’re not sure we would have tabbed the Jets to be the team with more.

 

 

MOST RUSHING YARDS, GAME, 2018

 

323               Jets vs. Denver, Week 5

281               Texans vs. Titans, Week 12

273               Seahawks at Rams, Week 10

270               Rams at Denver, Week 6

 

ISAIAH CROWELL had 219 rush yards in that game, BILAL POWELL 99.  So the Broncos gave up 593 rush yards in consecutive games.  Wow.  We missed that.

 

The 323 yards by the Jets is more than that New York team has had in any other two games combined.  In fact, the Jets have only had 4 team 100-yard rushing games.

 

 

JACKSONVILLE

Silly Jaguars RB LEONARD FOURNETTE is going to miss Sunday’s home game with the red-hot Colts – unless he wins an appeal.  Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com:

 

Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette was suspended by the NFL for one game for violations of unsportsmanlike conduct and unnecessary roughness, the league announced Monday.

 

Fournette is set to miss Jacksonville’s Week 13 test against the Indianapolis Colts as a result of his role in a skirmish during the Jags’ loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

 

He is expected to appeal the suspension, a source told NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. Fournette should know his fate before practice on Wednesday.

 

NFL vice president of football operations Jon Runyan explained the reason for Fournette’s suspension in the following statement: “Sportsmanship is the cornerstone of the game and the League will not tolerate game-related misconduct that conveys a lack of respect for the game itself and those involved in it… Video of the incident shows that you were not a participant in the play and that you ran from your sideline to the opposite side of the field to insert yourself as an active participant in a fight. Once you entered the fight area, you struck a member of the opposing team. Your actions adversely reflected on the NFL and have no place in the game.”

 

Fournette and Bills linebacker Shaq Lawson were both ejected from Buffalo’s 24-21 win after participating in a fracas late in the third quarter. The fight occured after Jags wide receiver Donte Moncrief came down with a contested catch near Buffalo’s goal line. Both teams traded shoves as Moncrief and Bills cornerback Levi Wallace fought for possession. Fournette and Lawson went after each other during the fight and, after being ejected, had to be restrained from each other in the tunnel.

 

“Your brothers are getting attacked, they’re fighting out there, you’re going to have to go there and also protect your own, but at the same time, professional now, I mean, you can’t have that,” Fournette explained to reporters after the loss. “I apologize to all those kids out there who look up to me and all of our fans. The biggest thing is this whole loss, totally on me. I take full responsibility.” Fournette also issued an apology Sunday on Instagram.

 

With Fournette likely out next week, Carlos Hyde and T.J. Yeldon should carry the load against the Colts’ 13th-ranked run defense.

 

If Fournette appeals, it would be heard and decided by either Derrick Brooks or James Thrash, the officers jointly appointed and compensated by the NFL and NFLPA to decide appeals of on-field player discipline.

 

 

TENNESSEE

For the second time in the weekend, a QB went an entire game with more than 20 pass attempts and one measly incompletion.  But this one, unlike QB PHILIP RIVERS of the Chargers, was a loser.  Austin Knoblach of NFL.com:

 

It’s not often a quarterback completes 19 straight passes to open a game and still loses. But that’s exactly the kind of unusual night Marcus Mariota had in Monday’s 34-17 loss to the Houston Texans.

 

Mariota completed 22 of 23 passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns. He also completed 19 straight passes before throwing an incompletion on the Titans’ final possession with just over a minute to go.

 

“Stats are stats,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said after the game when asked of Mariota’s string of completions. “The loss is really what I’m going to try to focus on. We got to stop the run. We can’t have second-and-25 and third-and-20. There’s a lot of other things other than individual stats that we’re trying to focus on.”

 

Vrabel had good reason to not be too smitten by Mariota’s statistical achievement. Tennessee gave up six sacks on Mariota and the Titans only mustered three scoring drives. In addition, of those 19 straight completions, only three went beyond 10 yards in the air.

 

“I can do a better job, though,” Mariota said after the game. “I didn’t help our guys up front — I was holding the ball too long. I got us in negative situations, taking some of these sacks. I’ll look back at the film and get better from it, and improve.”

 

Still, Mariota’s performance was steady and encouraging considering he was dealing with a neck stinger at the beginning of the week that was initially threatening his participation in the game. While the completion streak was impressive, the Titans (5-6) will need to link up multiple wins to have any shot at a playoff berth.

 

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

The Patriots are activating RB REX BURKHEAD for the stretch run.  Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal:

 

The Patriots are getting healthy at the right time and their offense is reaping the benefits.

 

According to a source, the Patriots are activating Rex Burkhead to the 53-man roster. The running back has been on the injured reserve since Week 4, with a neck injury, but returned to practice weeks ago. The team’s deadline to active him was later this week. ESPN was first with the news

 

Burkhead appeared in just three games this season, rushing for 86 yards and adding three catches for 31 yards. Burkhead started the season as the Patriots starting running back. He rushed for 64 yards on 18 carries in Week 1. He’ll add another dynamic layer to the Patriots running back depth with Sony Michel and James White. Both running backs are coming off career-best days in New Jersey.

 

Burkhead has struggled to stay healthy with the Patriots, but he’s been efficient. He played in just 10 games last season, but scored eight touchdowns (five rushing and three receiving).

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

AIKMAN RATINGS

With a strong Thanksgiving showing against the Falcons, the Saints widened their lead over the Bears in the Aikman Combined Ratings compiled by Sports Radar thru Week 12.  A lead that was just 0.1 when the Saints took over the top spot after Week 11 is now 2.5 points.

 

With their big win over the Cardinals, the Chargers moved up from 5th to 3rd, while the Steelers fell from 3rd to 7th while losing to the Broncos.

 

The 9-2 Chiefs and the 10-1 Rams, the teams with the two best records in football, are 5th and 6th in the current Aikman Combined.  We would not that the addition of Kansas City’s NFL yards-only rankings of 3rd on offense and 30th on defense (33) is bettered by 17 teams, including the Jaguars and 49ers who are a combined 5-17.  The Rams combined yards ranking number of 22 is tied for 7th.

 

The Saints continue atop the Aikman Offense Ratings as both they and the Chiefs continue on pace to be the first teams to reach 100 for a season.

 

The Bears remain first on defense.  We would note that when the Aikmans were devised in 2005, the average rating on both sides of the ball was calibrated to be 75.  But the game has evolved such that in 2018, offenses are averaging 84.5 and defenses are down to 65.3.  As a result, only the Bears and the Vikings are above, barely, the mark of 75 the denoted an average defense just 13 years ago.

 

2018 Aikman Combined Ratings Through Week 12

————–

Aikman

————–

————–

NFL

————–

Rank

Record

Team

Combined

Off

Def

Off

Def

Combined

1

10-1-0

New Orleans Saints

169.3

103.1

66.2

5

15

20

2

8-3-0

Chicago Bears

166.8

87.5

79.4

21

4

25

3

8-3-0

Los Angeles Chargers

165.3

92.5

72.8

6

9

15

4

6-5-0

Indianapolis Colts

160.9

93.3

67.6

8

17

25

5

9-2-0

Kansas City Chiefs

160.3

101.0

59.2

3

30

33

6

10-1-0

Los Angeles Rams

159.6

98.2

61.4

2

20

22

7

7-3-1

Pittsburgh Steelers

158.7

91.5

67.2

4

6

10

8

6-4-1

Minnesota Vikings

157.3

80.4

76.9

14

3

17

9

6-5-0

Baltimore Ravens

157.1

87.5

69.6

11

1

12

10

6-5-0

Seattle Seahawks

156.4

89.8

66.6

16

16

32

11

8-3-0

New England Patriots

155.0

89.5

65.5

8

22

30

12

6-5-0

Dallas Cowboys

154.3

83.2

71.1

25

7

32

13

4-6-1

Green Bay Packers

153.9

87.5

66.4

10

12

22

14

6-5-0

Washington Redskins

153.5

81.5

72.0

27

18

45

15

6-5-0

Carolina Panthers

152.3

91.3

61.0

13

14

27

16

8-3-0

Houston Texans

152.0

82.8

69.2

12

8

20

17

4-6-1

Cleveland Browns

151.0

84.9

66.2

18

31

49

18

5-6-0

Denver Broncos

150.0

83.8

66.2

15

25

40

19

5-6-0

Philadelphia Eagles

147.6

81.8

65.8

19

24

43

20

5-6-0

Tennessee Titans

146.8

77.8

69.0

30

10

40

21

3-8-0

New York Giants

144.6

81.2

63.4

20

23

43

22

4-7-0

Detroit Lions

143.3

80.9

62.4

23

13

36

23

4-7-0

Atlanta Falcons

142.3

90.2

52.1

7

28

35

24

3-8-0

Jacksonville Jaguars

142.0

75.1

66.9

22

5

27

25

2-9-0

San Francisco 49ers

141.2

80.0

61.2

17

11

28

26

5-6-0

Cincinnati Bengals

139.4

88.5

50.9

26

32

58

27

5-6-0

Miami Dolphins

139.1

72.6

66.5

28

29

57

28

4-7-0

Buffalo Bills

137.3

70.2

67.1

31

2

33

29

4-7-0

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

137.2

85.5

51.7

1

27

28

30

3-8-0

New York Jets

136.1

67.4

68.7

29

21

50

31

2-9-0

Oakland Raiders

133.5

74.8

58.7

24

26

50

32

2-9-0

Arizona Cardinals

129.9

68.2

61.7

32

19

51

 

Aikman Offense Ratings Through Week 12, 2018

Aikman

NFL

Team

AER

1

5

New Orleans Saints

103.1

2

3

Kansas City Chiefs

101.0

3

2

Los Angeles Rams

98.2

4

8

Indianapolis Colts

93.3

5

6

Los Angeles Chargers

92.5

6

4

Pittsburgh Steelers

91.5

7

13

Carolina Panthers

91.3

8

7

Atlanta Falcons

90.2

9

16

Seattle Seahawks

89.8

10

8

New England Patriots

89.5

11

26

Cincinnati Bengals

88.5

12

10

Green Bay Packers

87.5

13

11

Baltimore Ravens

87.5

14

21

Chicago Bears

87.5

15

1

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

85.5

16

18

Cleveland Browns

84.9

17

15

Denver Broncos

83.8

18

25

Dallas Cowboys

83.2

19

12

Houston Texans

82.8

20

19

Philadelphia Eagles

81.8

21

27

Washington Redskins

81.5

22

20

New York Giants

81.2

23

23

Detroit Lions

80.9

24

14

Minnesota Vikings

80.4

25

17

San Francisco 49ers

80.0

26

30

Tennessee Titans

77.8

27

22

Jacksonville Jaguars

75.1

28

24

Oakland Raiders

74.8

29

28

Miami Dolphins

72.6

30

31

Buffalo Bills

70.2

31

32

Arizona Cardinals

68.2

32

29

New York Jets

67.4

NFL Average:

84.5

 

 

Aikman Defense Ratings Through Week 12, 2018

Aikman

NFL

Team

AER

1

4

Chicago Bears

79.4

2

3

Minnesota Vikings

76.9

3

9

Los Angeles Chargers

72.8

4

18

Washington Redskins

72.0

5

7

Dallas Cowboys

71.1

6

1

Baltimore Ravens

69.6

7

8

Houston Texans

69.2

8

10

Tennessee Titans

69.0

9

21

New York Jets

68.7

10

17

Indianapolis Colts

67.6

11

6

Pittsburgh Steelers

67.2

12

2

Buffalo Bills

67.1

13

5

Jacksonville Jaguars

66.9

14

16

Seattle Seahawks

66.6

15

29

Miami Dolphins

66.5

16

12

Green Bay Packers

66.4

17

25

Denver Broncos

66.2

18

15

New Orleans Saints

66.2

19

31

Cleveland Browns

66.2

20

24

Philadelphia Eagles

65.8

21

22

New England Patriots

65.5

22

23

New York Giants

63.4

23

13

Detroit Lions

62.4

24

19

Arizona Cardinals

61.7

25

20

Los Angeles Rams

61.4

26

11

San Francisco 49ers

61.2

27

14

Carolina Panthers

61.0

28

30

Kansas City Chiefs

59.2

29

26

Oakland Raiders

58.7

30

28

Atlanta Falcons

52.1

31

27

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

51.7

32

32

Cincinnati Bengals

50.9

NFL Average:

65.3

 

BROADCAST NEWS

Bill Barnwell, who we like, does not include the Browns in his long look at the AFC playoff race.  Much edited below:

 

Tier I: The extreme outsiders

These teams basically have to run the table or come close to make it into the postseason. The good news for these fan bases: It happens more than you might think. In 2017, the Bills were at 5-5 after the Nathan Peterman game, but they beat the Chiefs, finished 4-2 and sneaked into the playoffs. The 2015 Steelers were 6-5 and finished 4-1 to win a wild-card berth. The 2013 Chargers were left for dead at 4-6, but they won five of their last six games to make the postseason at 9-7.

 

11. Miami Dolphins (5-6)

FPI playoff chances: 1.8 percent

The Dolphins really needed to win Sunday’s game against the Colts in which they led 24-14 with less than nine minutes to go and failed to come up with a victory. Adam Gase’s playcalling came in for criticism, given that the Dolphins’ final two drives protecting that lead combined for zero first downs, minus-1 yards and less than two full minutes taken off of the clock.

 

Gase chalked up his decision-making to the Colts’ run blitzes and poor field position, but the Colts aren’t the first team to run-blitz in a close game. The Dolphins had poor field position because Xavien Howard, who had two interceptions on consecutive Colts snaps, took a personal foul for a late hit on Eric Ebron’s game-tying touchdown, which was followed by a pair of penalties (one of which was accepted) on the ensuing short kickoff. The Dolphins didn’t execute with the game on the line.

– – –

The Dolphins have wasted their 3-0 start. They’re in rough tiebreaker shape at 4-4 in the AFC, and losses to the Bengals, Colts and Texans will make it tough to win a head-to-head tiebreaker, though they beat the Titans in the season opener. The good news is that they still have a home game against the Jaguars and a home-and-home with the Bills to come, but even if they win those three games, their other two matchups are a home game against the Patriots and a road trip to Minnesota.

 

10. Cincinnati Bengals (5-6)

FPI playoff chances: 4.0 percent

It’s tempting to say the Bengals’ season turned on the final two minutes of their game with the Steelers in Week 6. The 4-1 Bengals took a 21-20 lead on a Joe Mixon touchdown with 1:21 left, but a holding penalty on Dre Kirkpatrick extended Pittsburgh’s ensuing drive before Antonio Brown brought in a 31-yard touchdown with 15 seconds left to further Pittsburgh’s spell on its divisional rivals. The Bengals lost and have gone 1-4 since, including a 35-20 beatdown by the Browns on Sunday afternoon.

– – –

Rightfully, Cincinnati’s absolutely absent defense has been the story. Over the past five games, the Bengals have been allowing 3.3 points per possession on defense. To put that in context, the league average is 2.1 points per drive. The second-worst defense in the league over that time frame has been the Raiders, who are closer to the Jets in 19th place than they are to the Bengals. The Bengals have been allowing 9.3 yards per pass attempt, which is about what Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff are averaging this season.

– –

Cincinnati is about cooked. Three of its final five games are on the road, and while its home games are against the Broncos and Raiders, the Bengals are going to need to beat the Chargers or the Steelers away from home to have a realistic shot of making the postseason. There just isn’t much evidence that Marvin Lewis’ team has a win over a big team in it.

 

9. Denver Broncos (5-6)

FPI playoff chances: 9.7 percent

 

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that the Broncos were better than their 3-6 record and likely to improve during the second half of the season. I didn’t expect those developments to take place immediately. The Broncos have saved their season by beating the Chargers and Steelers in consecutive weeks. A team that looked like it might be firing coach Vance Joseph actually has an outside shot at making it back to the postseason.

 

What has changed? To start, the offense has held on to the football. Denver turned the ball over in each of its first nine games, but Case Keenum & Co. haven’t been turned over once during this two-game winning streak. The defense subsequently hasn’t had to face a single drive starting on Denver’s side of the field and has faced just two drives beginning past the opponent’s 30-yard line.

– – –

With the win, though, the Broncos unlock the easiest part of their schedule. It includes three road games in four weeks, but the opponents — the Bengals, 49ers, Browns and Raiders — aren’t scaring anyone. The best-case scenario for the Broncos is that they stay on a hot streak while the Chargers struggle without Melvin Gordon in advance of a Week 17 rematch between the two in Denver.

 

Tier II: The joy of six

With five AFC teams already north of 90 percent, the most likely scenario is that one of these three teams will make its way into the postseason as the sixth seed. Getting into the playoffs might be enough to win one of two rookie coaches a Coach of the Year nod. More pressingly, a playoff berth might also be enough to save one veteran coach’s job.

 

8. Tennessee Titans (5-6)

FPI playoff chances: ~14 percent

 

While Tennessee lost to the division rival Texans on Monday night, its playoff odds only dropped by 5.8 percentage points. The Titans can safely write their chances of winning the division off — their chances of a South title are a mere 2.0 percent — but their schedule from here on out is extremely generous.

 

Marcus Mariota & Co. finish their season with four home games over the next five weeks. They host the Jets, Jaguars, Washington, and the Colts, with only a road trip to the Giants taking the Titans away from Nashville.

– – –

Until the Titans figure themselves out, it’s tough to count on them to make the run their schedule suggests is possible.

 

7. Indianapolis Colts (6-5)

FPI playoff chances: 38.4 percent

 

The Colts got away with one Sunday, winning a sloppy game over the Dolphins despite turning the ball over three times. It’s tempting to take this as a positive sign that the Colts can squeeze out victories without their best stuff, but history suggests that blowout wins over mediocre teams like the Bills and Titans are much more meaningful and promising than narrow victories over the Fins and Jaguars. Indy has mixed victories of both types on its five-game winning streak, although the only serious playoff contender among the five was the Titans.

 

Things get stiffer for Luck and the Colts over the remainder of the season, although each of their final five games is winnable. Indy still has to play its AFC South brethren on the road, including the Jaguars and Texans over the next two weeks. Its home games are against the Cowboys, who are surging, and the Giants, who represent the opposite of surging.

 

6. Baltimore Ravens (6-5)

FPI playoff chances: 43.0 percent

 

For the second week in a row, the Ravens pulled out a victory with Lamar Jackson at the helm over a dismal defense

 

I’m more optimistic about Jackson than QBR given some additional context. Both of Jackson’s interceptions were on tipped passes, so even if I think Jackson went to the wrong place with the football, those mistakes are more likely to end with an incompletion rather than an interception. He was a clear threat as a runner even without carrying the ball frequently and created running lanes for Gus Edwards, who rushed 23 times for 118 yards. Jackson also had a perfect 48-yard completion to John Brown wiped away by holding on Orlando Brown.

 

Has Jackson shown enough to justify a permanent role as the starting quarterback ahead of Joe Flacco? It’s difficult to say. The offense we saw against the Bengals in Week 11 had a definite shelf life. On Sunday, we saw a more balanced attack, but the Ravens averaged 6.0 yards per play against a Raiders defense that has allowed more than that in eight of its 10 other games this season. It’s tough to imagine the Ravens thriving with this offense against tough defenses in the postseason.

 

At the same time, though, it would hardly be a surprise for Jackson to feel more comfortable in a sustainable offense as the season goes along. The Ravens are also entering a two-game stretch in which running the football well could be extremely valuable, given that they’re about to face the high-powered offenses of the Falcons and Chiefs. In both cases, the best game plan might be to focus on the run and keep Matt Ryan and Patrick Mahomes off the field. If that’s the case, Jackson is clearly the better option.

 

Tier III: The 90 percenters

These teams are basically assured a playoff spot, as their playoff chances exceed 90 percent. Each has seven wins or more, but we only have to go back to the 2014 Eagles to find a team that started 8-3 and still managed to miss the postseason. Barring a dramatic collapse, though, these teams are mostly battling for January seeding and an outside chance at a first-round bye.

 

5. Los Angeles Chargers (8-3)

FPI playoff chances: 94.2 percent

 

I have to admit: When the Chargers went down 10-0 to the Cardinals in the first quarter on Sunday, I was worried there might be a hangover effect from an inconsistent performance against the Raiders and a sloppy loss to the Broncos last week. Philip Rivers took care of that. The 36-year-old quarterback played arguably the most efficient game of his career, going 28-of-29 passing for 259 yards with three touchdowns before giving way to Geno Smith. The Cardinals aren’t slouches, either; this was the league’s fifth-best pass defense by DVOA heading into the week.

– – –

I wouldn’t have been concerned about the Chargers missing Gordon in the past, because they’ve been basically the same offense with and without Gordon in the fold. From 2015 to ’17, the Chargers averaged 3.7 yards per rush with Gordon on the field and … 3.7 yards per rush with him on the sideline. Over that same time frame, Rivers posted a passer rating of 93.3 with the first-round pick in the lineup and a passer rating of 91.7 with Gordon not on the field.

– – –

The timing also hurts, as the Chargers are off to Pittsburgh to play an angry Steelers team next Sunday night. They’ll have to hope to get Gordon back for a critical Thursday night game against the Chiefs in Week 15, a game the Chargers will realistically have to win to have any shot of hosting a playoff game come January.

 

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3-1)

FPI playoff chances: 95.5 percent

 

It felt like this sort of loss was coming for the Steelers, who had managed to survive a near loss in overtime to the Browns, won a game they trailed with 1:18 left against the Bengals, and came back for a victory against the Jags in a dramatic goal-to-go situation last week. Last week, penalties helped the Steelers overcome a James Conner drop to set up a game-winning score. This week, they weren’t as lucky. Conner was stuffed on a run from the 2-yard line before Roethlisberger was picked off on a pop pass by nose tackle Shelby Harris.

 

The Steelers don’t have much to be worried about. Their offense generated 527 yards Sunday and left 100 more on the field with drops.

– – –

The Steelers don’t have to play the Ravens again, but their remaining schedule is going to be a problem. Over the next four weeks, they host the Chargers, travel to play the Raiders, host the Patriots and then head to New Orleans to play the Saints. Those are three of the eight best teams in football and the Raiders. Two of the three tough games are at home, but the Patriots have won their past five contests against the Steelers. The Upshot’s playoff model gives the Steelers a 27 percent of claiming a first-round bye. Lose to the Patriots and those chances fall to 6 percent.

 

With the Steelers unlikely to challenge the 9-2 Chiefs for a first-round bye given the head-to-head tiebreaker, Mike Tomlin’s team is more realistically competing for the 3-seed in the AFC with the Texans. The gap between the Chargers (who are overwhelming favorites to finish as the fifth seed) and the range of possible sixth seeds looks to be more significant than the split between most wild-card teams. There’s real value in finishing third and avoiding Joey Bosa & Co. in the first round. That should be Pittsburgh’s goal heading into the postseason.

 

3. Houston Texans (8-3)

FPI playoff chances: ~96 percent

 

The Texans aren’t as good as their record. They have the Pythagorean expectation of a 6.8-win team, leaving them more than a full win ahead of their underlying level of play. They’ve played the league’s sixth-easiest schedule per FPI. They’re currently on an eight-game winning streak, but the toughest team the Texans have played over that stretch is probably the Colts. Four of those wins have come by a field goal, and a fifth was by a touchdown over the Bills. Their only comfortable victories before stomping the Titans on Monday night came over the Jaguars, who benched Blake Bortles, and the Dolphins, who were starting Brock Osweiler.

 

If you’re a Texans fan, I have good news: none of that is going to matter, because things aren’t going to correct themselves for a while. Bill O’Brien’s team has already banked enough wins that they can essentially make the postseason with two victories in their final five games.

 

Tier IV: The locks

It would take an unprecedented collapse for one of the top two seeds in the AFC to miss the postseason. More realistically, they’re battling for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

 

2. New England Patriots (8-3)

FPI playoff chances: 99.8 percent

 

The Patriots can clinch the AFC East for the 10th consecutive season — the 15th consecutive campaign with a healthy Tom Brady, who missed most of the 2008 season — by beating the Dolphins in Week 14. To put this in context, the last quarterback duo to pip a healthy Brady to the division title was Chad Pennington and Vinny Testaverde in 2002. A win over the Steelers the following week would leave New England in great shape to claim a first-round bye, although the Pats will need the Chiefs to slip up one more time to have any chance of making their tiebreaker advantage count.

 

1. Kansas City Chiefs (9-2)

FPI playoff chances: 99.9 percent

 

The Chiefs haven’t technically clinched a spot yet, but they would still be a likely wild card if they lost out. It’s not going to happen. They still have a home-and-home to come with the Raiders, and given that the road game is the Andy Reid bye week special, I don’t like Oakland’s chances of coming away with a split. Sweeping the Raiders and throwing in one more victory over the Ravens, Chargers or Seahawks would essentially lock up a week off for the Chiefs in January.

 

The bigger picture story revolves around Eric Berry. The Chiefs haven’t had any idea about when Berry might return from the Haglund’s deformity impacting his heel, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve carried their star safety on the active roster all season in lieu of placing him on the physically unable to perform or injured reserve lists. Reports on Friday suggested Berry would start practicing this week in advance of a December return.

 

It would be unfair to expect the All-Pro safety to play like his normal self after missing nearly two full seasons with the Haglund’s deformity and a ruptured Achilles, but even a limited Berry would be a valuable addition for the Chiefs. It’s fair to wonder if Kansas City might be 11-0 with a healthy Berry, given what has happened late in its two losses. The Patriots isolated Rob Gronkowski against reserve defensive back Josh Shaw for a critical 39-yard catch on the final drive of the game. Shaw hadn’t played on defense before the Pats game and isn’t even on the Chiefs’ roster anymore.

 

Sean McVay went to the same well with Gerald Everett last Monday night. The Chiefs got Daniel Sorensen, who had served as Berry’s replacement a year ago, back from injured reserve. Sorensen was an upgrade on Shaw, but Everett was still able to beat Sorensen for the final two Rams touchdowns of the game. Put Berry in those situations and we might be looking at a Chiefs team chasing history right about now.

 

 

POWER RATINGS

ESPN.com’s Power Ratings – with each team’s toughest games (edited)

 

We’re down to the final five weeks of the regular season. Much is still undecided, whether it’s playoff seeding for contenders or draft-pick slotting for those already looking to 2019.

 

In the Week 13 edition of the Power Rankings, our NFL Nation reporters break down the most difficult remaining test for each club. We also have every team’s projected win total, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI).

 

How we rank: Our power panel — a group of more than 80 writers, editors and TV personalities — evaluated how teams stack up through the first 12 weeks of the season.

 

1. New Orleans Saints (10-1)

Projected wins: 13.6 | Week 12 rank: 1

 

Toughest game left: Week 15 at Carolina. This kicks off a difficult two-game stretch for the Saints. First they have to play at their division rivals on Monday Night Football in potentially cold weather. Then they have to turn around on a short week and host the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 16. The Panthers (6-5) have fallen on hard times lately, but that could make them all the more desperate to salvage their playoff hopes when the Saints come to town. — Mike Triplett

 

2. Los Angeles Rams (10-1)

Projected wins: 13.9 | Week 12 rank: 2

 

Toughest game left: Week 14 at Chicago. The Rams are 10-1, and after a big win over the Chiefs, it seems improbable that they’ll drop a game the rest of the way. However, the Bears — who have won five straight — will present a challenge. — Lindsey Thiry

 

3. Kansas City Chiefs (9-2)

Projected wins: 12.7 | Week 12 rank: 3

 

Toughest game left: Week 16 at Seattle. The Chiefs, who have won 19 of their past 20 games against AFC West opponents, have three division games remaining. They also have a game against the Ravens at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs are 5-0 with an average margin of victory of 16.2 points. That leaves a road game against the Seahawks, who have a rushing attack that could give the Chiefs fits. — Adam Teicher

 

4. New England Patriots (8-3)

Projected wins: 11.5 | Week 12 rank: 5

 

Toughest game left: Week 15 at Pittsburgh. It’s the easy choice, even though a tough Vikings team comes to town Sunday, and a trip to Miami (Dec. 9) is always a challenge for the team — Mike Reiss

 

5. Los Angeles Chargers (8-3)

Projected wins: 11.0 | Week 12 rank: 7

 

Toughest game left: Week 15 at Kansas City. While the Chargers (8-3) are solidly in the playoffs right now, they’re only a game behind Kansas City (9-2) in the AFC West standings. However, the Bolts have lost nine straight against the Chiefs. — Eric Williams

 

6. Chicago Bears (8-3)

Projected wins: 10.7 | Week 12 rank: 6

 

Toughest game left: Week 14 vs. Los Angeles Rams. The Bears still have important divisional games left on the schedule against the Packers and Vikings, but Chicago’s upcoming matchup with the Rams — flexed to Sunday night — pits one of the league’s best offenses (Los Angeles) against the NFL’s top defensive unit (Bears). This could be a playoff preview. A victory over the Rams would convince those still reluctant to embrace the Bears’ turnaround that Matt Nagy’s team is for real. — Jeff Dickerson

 

7. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3-1)

Projected wins: 10.1 | Week 12 rank: 4

 

Toughest game left: Week 16 at New Orleans. The Saints are the league’s hottest team and have averaged 41.8 points per game in their past four Superdome games. The Steelers will be coming off an emotional matchup with the Patriots in Week 15 and will most likely need this victory to keep the dream of a first-round playoff bye alive. — Jeremy Fowler

 

8. Houston Texans (8-3)

Projected wins: 11.3 | Week 12 rank: 8

 

Toughest game left: Week 14 against red-hot Indianapolis. — Sarah Barshop

 

9. Minnesota Vikings (6-4-1)

Projected wins: 8.8 | Week 12 rank: 9

 

Toughest game left: Week 14 at Seattle. The Seahawks are experiencing a timely surge in the NFC playoff picture and will be chasing the Vikings for one of two wild-card spots. — Courtney Cronin

 

10. Seattle Seahawks (6-5)

Projected wins: 9.4 | Week 12 rank: 11

 

Toughest game left: Week 16 vs. Kansas City. The Seahawks survived the toughest stretch of their season and have a favorable remaining schedule, with four of their final five at home and only two against winning teams. But one of them is the 9-2 Chiefs, whose offense with MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes will be a handful for a Seattle defense that just allowed 476 yards in a victory over Carolina. It will help if Kansas City manages to lock up the AFC’s top seed by Week 15, in which case the Chiefs might have their foot off the gas by the time they come to CenturyLink Field. — Brady Henderson

 

11. Baltimore Ravens (6-5)

Projected wins: 8.5 | Week 12 rank: 13

 

Toughest game left: Week 14 at Kansas City. The Chiefs are one of three teams that are undefeated at home this season, and it hasn’t been close at Arrowhead Stadium. — Jamison Hensley

 

12. Carolina Panthers (6-5)

Projected wins: 8.2 | Week 12 rank: 10

 

Toughest game left: Week 17 at New Orleans.. — David Newton

 

13. Indianapolis Colts (6-5)

Projected wins: 8.8 | Week 12 rank: 15

 

Toughest game left: Week 14 at Houston. — Mike Wells

 

14. Dallas Cowboys (6-5)

Projected wins: 8.7 | Week 12 rank: 16

 

Toughest game left: Week 13 vs. New Orleans. The Cowboys feel good about themselves with a three-game win streak that has them in first place in the NFC East. But the Saints have won 10 games in a row and bring to AT&T Stadium a dynamic offense that can beat Dallas with the running game, the short passing game and big plays. — Todd Archer

 

15. Washington Redskins (6-5)

Projected wins: 8.2 | Week 12 rank: 14

 

Toughest game left: Week 13 at Philadelphia. The Redskins still have road games at Tennessee and Jacksonville, but those won’t mean a whole lot if Washington can’t win Monday night at the Eagles. — John Keim

 

16. Green Bay Packers (4-6-1)

Projected wins: 7.5 | Week 12 rank: 12

 

Toughest game left: Week 15 at Chicago. Yes, the Packers have been dominant at Soldier Field, winning eight consecutive games there. But things are different now. The Bears are on top of the NFC North, and the Packers are reeling. — Rob Demovsky

 

17. Tennessee Titans (5-6)

Projected wins: 7.9 | Week 12 rank: 17

 

Toughest game left: Week 17 vs. Indianapolis. Two of the next five games for the Titans come against teams with winning records. The toughest game will be against their AFC South rivals with a wild-card spot possibly on the line. The Colts have beaten Tennessee 10 consecutive times with Andrew Luck under center. — Turron Davenport

 

18. Philadelphia Eagles (5-6)

Projected wins: 7.2 | Week 12 rank: 18

 

Toughest game left: Week 15 at Los Angeles Rams. — Tim McManus

 

19. Denver Broncos (5-6)

Projected wins: 7.9 | Week 12 rank: 22

 

Toughest game left: Week 17 vs. Los Angeles Chargers. The Broncos just edged the Chargers 23-22 on a Brandon McManus field goal as time expired in Week 11. If things go as the Broncos hope — their next four opponents are a combined 13-30-1 — and they get some wins over the next month, that season-ender could mean something for them. — Jeff Legwold

 

20. Atlanta Falcons (4-7)

Projected wins: 6.7 | Week 12 rank: 20

 

Toughest game left: Week 14 at Green Bay. Beside the fact that the defense has to contend with Aaron Rodgers, being outdoors in the cold at Lambeau Field probably won’t help Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offense. — Vaughn McClure

 

21. Miami Dolphins (5-6)

Projected wins: 6.8 | Week 12 rank: 21

 

Toughest game left: Week 15 at Minnesota — Cameron Wolfe

 

22. Cincinnati Bengals (5-6)

Projected wins: 6.9 | Week 12 rank: 19

 

Toughest game left: Week 14 at Los Angeles Chargers. With the way the season is going, things might be over by the time the Bengals go to Pittsburgh in Week 17, which makes their road game against the Chargers loom large. — Katherine Terrell

 

23. Cleveland Browns (4-6-1)

Projected wins: 5.6 | Week 12 rank: 25

 

Toughest game left: Week 13 at Houston. The Browns have made progress against some of the lower-ranked defenses the past few games, but against Houston they face the league’s sixth-ranked defense on the road. — Pat McManamon

 

24. Detroit Lions (4-7)

Projected wins: 5.8 | Week 12 rank: 24

 

Toughest game left: Week 13 vs. Los Angeles Rams. The Lions have actually played well against some of the tougher teams on their schedule (New England, Chicago at home), but the Rams feel like something different. — Michael Rothstein

 

25. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-8)

Projected wins: 5.1 | Week 12 rank: 23

 

Toughest game left: Week 14 at Tennessee. The Titans have won five of the past six meetings, including a 9-6 victory at Jacksonville in Week 3. — Mike DiRocco

 

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7)

Projected wins: 5.6 | Week 12 rank: 27

 

Toughest game left: Week 14 vs. the New Orleans. Yep, the Buccaneers beat the Saints 48-40 at the Superdome in Week 1 — the Saints’ only loss this season — but statistically, the Saints just aren’t a good September team (5-12 the past five seasons), and they always hit their stride. — Jenna Laine

 

27. New York Giants (3-8)

Projected wins: 5.2 | Week 12 rank: 26

 

Toughest game left: Week 13 vs. Chicago. That isn’t a good matchup for an offensive line that has trouble protecting and a quarterback who can’t move. — Jordan Raanan

 

28. Buffalo Bills (4-7)

Projected wins: 6.4 | Week 12 rank: 28

 

Toughest game left: Week 16 at New England. There is zero doubt about this game being the hardest for Buffalo, which has won only twice at Gillette Stadium since it opened in 2002: the 2014 season finale, when Tom Brady did not play the second half, and Week 4 of 2016, when Jacoby Brissett started in place of a suspended Brady and an injured Jimmy Garoppolo. The Bills were tied with the Patriots 13-13 at halftime of last season’s trip but lost 37-16. — Mike Rodak

 

29. New York Jets (3-8)

Projected wins: 4.2 | Week 12 rank: 29

 

Toughest game left: Week 17 at New England. They’re all difficult when you’ve lost five straight and have a 21.5 percent chance of losing out, per ESPN data, but the absolute toughest will be the season finale. — Rich Cimini

 

30. San Francisco 49ers (2-9)

Projected wins: 3.5 | Week 12 rank: 30

 

Toughest game left: Week 13 at Seattle. Every week is a difficult matchup for the Niners in their current state, but they haven’t beaten the Seahawks in Seattle since 2011 and haven’t beaten them at all since 2012 — Nick Wagoner

 

31. Oakland Raiders (2-9)

Projected wins: 3.1 | Week 12 rank: 31

 

Toughest game left: Week 13 vs. Kansas City. With the Raiders giving up an NFL-worst 6.5 yards per play, the Chiefs averaging an NFL-best 7.0 yards per play and Oakland facing its AFC West brethren two times in the final five weeks, things could get ugly in a hurry. — Paul Gutierrez

 

32. Arizona Cardinals (2-9)

Projected wins: 2.8 | Week 12 rank: 32

 

Toughest game left: All of them. Seriously. The Cardinals are 2-9 and have been competitive recently against the 49ers and Raiders — the NFL’s other two-win teams. But every game will be tough for the Cardinals from here on out, even though their next three opponents — the Packers, Lions and Falcons — have been struggling of late. The Cards finish the season at home against the currently 10-1 Rams and at the surging Seahawks. — Josh Weinfuss