We focused on the AFC with our three live games on Sky Sports NFL on Sunday night and I opened the evening by setting the scene with a look at the conference's playoff seedings.
As we went into what proved to be another intriguing 11 or so hours of action, 13 teams in the AFC were within one win of the playoff spots. By the time we had seen the Los Angeles Chargers record a big win on the road in Cincinnati, the two-point drama in Pittsburgh and the continuation of winning streaks in Miami and Kansas City, where were we?
Exactly where we started the evening! There are still 13 teams within one victory of the playoff berths in the AFC as this incredible race keeps on delivering.
If the Buffalo Bills can win at home against the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football, we will have a five-way tie atop of the AFC rankings with the Pats, Bills, Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens and Chiefs all at 8-4.
It's amazing how wide open this season has become and how fallible the teams in the AFC appear to be. I've only gone back 10 years because, well, it's Monday morning and I haven't had much sleep. But in the past 10 seasons, the most losses any number one seed has ever had in the regular season is four (Kansas City 2018, Denver 2015, New England and Seattle 2014).
The five teams who lead the AFC standings already have four regular season losses with five games still to play. With that in mind, it's highly likely we are going to have a number one seed with at least five defeats on their dance card. You would have to go back to 2002 to find the last time that happened when the Oakland Raiders were the AFC's top seed with an 11-5 record (thanks to Sky Sports stats legend Benedict Bermange for digging deeper than I did and coming up with that information!)
It's not just the AFC that is a total lottery, either. As we approach Week 14, no team has clinched a playoff berth and not a single team – even the Detroit Lions – has been eliminated from the postseason picture. And six of the eight divisions have the top two teams separated by no more than two games.
While this makes for a frenzied run to the regular season finish line, I think predicting what is going to happen come playoff time is an absolute fool's errand. Nobody knows, even once games begin to play out things can change quickly.
The Pittsburgh Steelers looked miserable for much of their game against Baltimore and trailed 10-3 in the second half. The Steelers then found their offensive form and were in great shape as they took a late 20-13 lead on Ben Roethlisberger's touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson and a two-point strike to Pat Freiermuth.
Then the Steelers looked in trouble again as Lamar Jackson threw a touchdown pass to Sammy Watkins with 12 seconds remaining and tight end Mark Andrews came wide open on a two-point effort that somehow fell incomplete. Pittsburgh's emotions were up and down like Tower Bridge, perfectly summing up the unpredictable nature of this season's NFL.
There is no better place in the world to visit at Christmas than New York, in my opinion, and if you were to venture past the league office in Manhattan about now and listened very carefully; you could probably hear the laughing and joyful sounds coming from Commissioner Roger Goodell way above the busy streets.
No one knows what is happening in the NFL from quarter to quarter, let alone from game to game, and that kind of unpredictable drama is going to make for a very happy holiday season for the league's power brokers in the Big Apple.
The Miami Dolphins… When the Dolphins fell to a 23-20 defeat at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars in London, I felt they had reached a low point in their season. But they followed up that loss with defeats to Atlanta – on another final kick of the game – and Buffalo. They were wallowing at 1-7 and head coach Brian Flores was sitting on a warming seat. Since then, the Dolphins have dragged themselves off the canvas and back into the playoff fight. Tua Tagovailoa has played very efficiently and well at quarterback and Jaylen Waddle is becoming an every-week factor in Miami's quick passing game. But the defense is the driving force of this Dolphins revival – in their five successive wins, Miami have given up a total of 55 points. Flores is seeing great production from young defenders such as Jaelan Phillips (five sacks in two games) and safety Jevon Holland, who came from the same 2021 Draft class as Waddle and Phillips. That is proving to be a pretty good haul for the Dolphins.
The Washington Football Team… Like the Dolphins, the Football Team started slowly in 2021, losing six of their first eight. But four straight victories have Ron Rivera's side at 6-6 and controlling their own playoff destiny the rest of the way. In an incredible scheduling quirk, Washington's final five contests are against Dallas, Philadelphia, Dallas, Philadelphia and the New York Giants. It's NFC East games the rest of the way for a team that is being powered by a defense that has somehow improved since the excellent Chase Young was lost for the season to injury. Taylor Heinicke is certainly enjoying Washington's winning run – his contract signed in the offseason is set up so he receives a $125,000 bonus for every win in which he plays more than 60 percent of the offensive snaps. Merry Christmas, Mr Heinicke… that's another $500,000 in the bank!
The Arizona Cardinals… You can count on one hand the number of 'complete' teams in today's NFL, but the Arizona Cardinals certainly appear to be one of them and they are the league's first side to reach 10 wins on the season following Sunday's 33-22 victory in Chicago. Kyler Murray eased his way back into action with two touchdown passes and a pair of touchdown runs. But he never had to push the envelope too much (he only threw for 123 yards and rushed for 59) because Arizona played great defense on a rainy and miserable day, sacking Andy Dalton three times and pouncing for four interceptions. We're far enough into this season to know the Cardinals are genuine Super Bowl contenders and can no longer be viewed as a surprise package. And while homefield advantage in the playoffs would be nice, consider this… the Cardinals are 7-0 on the road in 2021 with all of those victories coming by at least 10 points.
Mike Zimmer's defense… With four seconds left on the clock in Detroit, Minnesota's defense was on the field looking to protect a four-point lead against the winless Lions. Detroit had the ball at the Vikings' 11-yard line with Jared Goff looking to deliver some late magic in what had been, for him, another largely forgettable game. There would have been a time not that long ago when the Vikings would have loved the game resting on the shoulders of their Mike Zimmer-led defense. That is no longer the case. The defensive effort on the game's final play – a touchdown strike to Amon-Ra St. Brown – was confusing and worrying. St. Brown did nothing special from a route concept point of view. He ran straight up the field, two yards deep and simply turned around. Cornerback Cameron Dantzler was actually walking as St. Brown started his route, gave up far too much ground as he retreated four yards into the end zone and he could never get back up to make a play on the ball. Safety Xavier Woods also dropped too deep as the Vikings failed to defend their goal line in a shockingly bad defensive play.
Andy Dalton… One week after he actually looked relatively decent on Thanksgiving Day, Andy Dalton was terrible in the Chicago Bears' 33-22 loss to the Cardinals, throwing four costly interceptions. The Bears have now fallen to 4-8 on the season and I have to say that head coach Matt Nagy is a dead man walking. The sooner he gets put out of his own misery, the better it will be for him, personally. He looks like a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The Fast Five…
- Ben Roethlisberger entered Sunday's showdown with Baltimore as the 22nd-ranked quarterback in the NFL and that statistic was not an illusion. Pittsburgh's passer has not been good for large chunks of this 2021 campaign and he was coming off a miserable showing against Cincinnati in Week 12. But Big Ben rolled back the years late in Sunday's dramatic 20-19 win over Baltimore. After a moribund first half, Roethlisberger came alive in the final period; going nine of 10 for 129 yards, two touchdowns and a two-point conversion. Big Ben also responded to Baltimore's array of blitzes, hitting on eight of 11 for 112 yards and two scores. It was quite the finish in front of the frenzied Terrible Towel wavers in Steeltown.
- If you want some wholesome content to brighten your Monday, check out the post-game celebrations of Gardner Minshew and his father after Philadelphia's 33-18 win over the New York Jets. Aren't our lives just that bit more fun with Minshew Mania in our lives? And he proved himself to be capable of some pretty good quarterback play in Week 13, hitting on 20 of 25 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns. Minshew's quarterback rating of 133.7 was the highest for any Eagles starting quarterback over the last eight seasons.
- Back to the Baltimore-Pittsburgh game for just a moment. I had no problem seeing John Harbaugh call for the two-point conversion to win the contest from the two-yard line with the ball in Lamar Jackson's hands. The Ravens had been out-played in the fourth quarter and were very banged up in the secondary. Going for the score from two yards out genuinely was their best shot at victory, as opposed to overtime. They just failed to execute in a big spot.
- Tom Brady owns the Atlanta Falcons. We knew that already, but he confirmed it with a tenth win out of 10 on Sunday. In those 10 contests, Brady has now thrown 28 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. TB12 threw for 368 yards and four scores in Tampa Bay's 30-17 win in Atlanta, but a more notable performance, for me, came from a fit-again Rob Gronkowski. Brady's favourite tight end only caught four passes but two of them went for touchdowns. With Gronk rounding back into fitness and form, the Bucs are dangerous. Very dangerous.
- I loved the locker room scenes from Detroit and the emotional words coming from head coach Dan Campbell. He is far from perfect and he needs to find a way to give back the play-calling duties to somebody else in 2022, but players fight hard for Dan Campbell. The Lions have a decent stock of draft picks and their major task in this coming offseason is to find some pieces for their coach. Campbell needs time to grow as a tactical coach, but he's already there as a leader of men. Now it's all about finding him some players. But good for him and the Lions for getting their first win on Sunday.
Fact of the Week
The Kansas City Chiefs have won five in a row and their defensive improvements are real. Since Week 9, the Chiefs have held opposing quarterbacks to a rating of 39.3 on downfield throws of 20+ air yards. That rating had been 125.4 in Weeks 1-8. The Chiefs have also pressured opposing quarterbacks on 32.3 percent of dropbacks – that is up from 25.6 percent in Weeks 1-8.
Finish That Sentence
Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we so often did on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go…
From Phil McNamara (@PhilMcNamara) The best team in the AFC is…_ likely to boil down to a battle – and eventual showdown - between the Kansas City Chiefs and the New England Patriots. Kansas City have lost some of their pizazz and are more reliant on a physical defense, but that is no bad thing. It's actually a bit more New England-like. And the Patriots have rounded into tremendous form but let's see how they far in Buffalo tonight. I'm not ready to give up on the Bills as my Super Bowl pick just yet. I just like the fact that the coaches in New England and KC have won on the big stages and will be ready for the stresses of January. The AFC is wide open, but those would be my top two with Buffalo still hanging around in the conversation.
From Pete Hodges (@PeteHodges14) Jared Goff's performance meant… very little for him personally, in the grand scheme of things. I remain convinced that the Lions pulled the trigger on the Goff trade to acquire a bridge to their next quarterback and a bunch of draft picks. I don't think they are that invested in Goff in the long term and as good as he was on that final drive to win the game, I believe very little has changed. Now, what that drive might have done is showcase Goff to another team if and when the Lions move on. I would not be shocked if Goff starts for one more year in Detroit as they eye young quarterbacks in the NFL Draft, but I would be massively surprised if he is still there in 2023.
From Billy G (@generichash) The NFL MVP award goes to… whichever of Tom Brady or Kyler Murray can make the deepest run in the playoffs. When it comes to the media who vote on this award, how deep you can go in January can often be a factor when looking to break a tie. I know it sounds a bit like a broken record, but Tom Brady has been excellent this season. He has thrown some interceptions along the way – who hasn't in this wild season? – but also leads the league with 34 touchdown strikes. Brady now has six games this season in which he has thrown four touchdown passes. Murray has been excellent and was the NFL's highest-rated passer heading into Week 13. He may get banged by missing three games through injury, but I don't think so. Murray is going to garner some serious consideration alongside Brady. As an outsider, let's not sleep on Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor.
The Los Angeles Chargers stepped up in a big way during Sunday's 41-22 win over the Cincinnati Bengals that leaves both teams in the playoff places but with no-room-for-error 7-5 records. As per usual, the Chargers leaned heavily on quarterback Justin Herbert as he threw for 317 yards and three touchdowns while posting a passer rating of 118.4. LA are now a perfect 6-0 on the year when Herbert has a rating of 100 or above. But this win was rooted in character and big defensive plays. The Chargers led 24-0 but were on the ropes early in the fourth as the Bengals had scored 22 unanswered points and were driving to take the lead. But Tevaughn Campbell pounced on a Joe Mixon fumble and raced 61 yards for the game-breaking score. The Bengals had the stuffing knocked out of them and could not respond. It was the biggest of four Chargers takeaways on the day.