As we come down the home stretch of the regular season, each game begins to matter more and more for the teams still in playoff contention. Every team in the hunt is competing for either a better seed or a postseason spot in general. There were several games this week that had significant implications regarding teams' chances at the playoffs or their seeding when that time comes. I'll be recapping the most important games and giving my insight on what the outcome means for those respective teams.
Kansas City Chiefs - 33, Miami Dolphins - 27
It looked like the Dolphins were on their way to a major upset, as they led 10-0 five minutes into the second quarter. However, after heavy doses of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce and a 67-yard punt return touchdown by Mecole Hardman, Patrick Mahomes' team scored 30 straight points to hold a 30-10 lead at the end of the third quarter. While Miami was able to come back in the fourth to make it a one possession game with over four minutes to play, Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker knocked in a 46-yard field goal to essentially secure his team a win.
Some people are criticizing Mahomes for throwing three interceptions, but he also completed 24 of 34 passes for almost 400 yards. Simply speaking, I don't think there's any team that can stop the explosive Chiefs offense and they can put up bunches of points in short order. They have, in my opinion, basically clinched the top seed in the AFC, and while they have a tough matchup with the Saints next week, I don't think New Orleans has a prayer, especially if Drew Brees is out again. As for the Dolphins, while they're still in as the seven seed if the season ended today, they're tied with the surging Ravens, who have probably the easiest remaining schedule of any contender. There is no longer any room for error for the Dolphins, but they can solidify a playoff spot if they win their last three against tough opponents.
Arizona Cardinals - 26, New York Giants - 7
These two teams entered on opposite trends. Arizona was slumping and New York was riding high. However, somewhat surprisingly, the Cardinals dominated. They held the Daniel Jones led Giants to only 159 yards of offense and recorded eight sacks while forcing three fumbles. It was an exquisite defensive performance that allowed the offense to operate with a comfortable lead for pretty much the whole game.
Both squads were separated by just one game in the conference standings, which is a shock to a lot of people. If this game had occurred in one of the first weeks of the season, the Cardinals would have probably been favored by double digits. Nonetheless, Arizona is now penciled in to the seventh seed in the NFC and will remain there unless they drop a game to either the Vikings or Bears. Those two teams have to play each other next week, so one is guaranteed to lose. All three have one tough opponent remaining outside of that contest, so Arizona is in a good place to keep that final wild card spot. As for the Giants, they're now one game behind Washington for the NFC East bid. They own the tiebreaker with Washington, so they only need to match their record by the end of the year. But I think they drop both of the next two and finish on the outside looking in. Giants fans have to be happy that they even had a shot this late into the season considering how the year started for them.
Minnesota Vikings - 14, Tampa Bay Buccaneers - 26
Speaking of the Vikings, they could have greatly helped their cause against the Bucs, but kicking woes came back to haunt them. They played well enough on defense to have a chance to win, but kicker Dan Bailey missed three field goals and an extra point, leaving ten points on the board. They had the ball in Tampa territory with over three minutes remaining, and had the score been 26-24 at that time, we could have seen a different ending.
I'm still not confident in the Buccaneers this season, but they've all but clinched the postseason now with a two game cushion and a final slate featuring the Lions and the Falcons twice. As for Minnesota, they'll likely have to sweep in their final three contests and get some help from other teams to overcome a one game deficit to get in as the seven seed. Similarly to the Giants, the Vikings were one of the worst teams in the league through the first four or five games, so they've made a great push in the middle part of the season and have lots of young talent. They'll have to pack it up and try again next year in all likelihood, though.
Indianapolis Colts - 44, Las Vegas Raiders - 27
This game, along with the Ravens - Browns matchup (to be discussed later), were the two biggest games between wild card contenders this week. The Colts held a one game lead over the Raiders going in, but both maintained solid chances at reaching the postseason. I though the two were pretty evenly matched, and they demonstrated that in the first half, where Indianapolis held a slight lead throughout. However, the second half was a different story, as Indy gashed the Raider defense and shut them down in the process, capping it with a 50-yard pick six en route to a 44-27 victory when it was all said and done.
The Colts are playing some of the best football in the league right now, and their defense is elite. Their lone loss in the last five weeks was against the Titans when they had a plethora of important linebackers and defensive linemen out with injuries or COVID positives. It's encouraging for Colts fans to finally see Philip Rivers connecting with T.Y. Hilton, who caught two touchdown passes in Las Vegas after being almost nonexistent up until that point. Indianapolis remains deadlocked with the Titans, thought they do not own the tiebreaker as of now. Both teams have one tough game and two friendly matchups remaining, and I think they'll both find themselves in the postseason. Unfortunately for the Raiders, I would say they're done. They have to make up a game on both the Ravens and the Dolphins, and I can't see that happening with the ease of Baltimore's remaining schedule.
New Orleans Saints - 21, Philadelphia Eagles - 24
This was one of the most stunning outcomes of all the games this week, as the Saints were heavy favorites and were expected to roll through the awful Eagles who were giving a rookie quarterback his first start. Philadelphia started strong and got out to a 17-0 lead at halftime before fending off a second half Saints comeback to win by a field goal. Jalen Hurts wasn't that effective through the air, but he did toss a touchdowns pass and added over 100 yards on the ground. New Orleans, whose defense has been one of the league's best over the past several weeks, couldn't find an answer to Philly's run game, and they got torched for 246 rushing yards. Taysom Hill played pretty well other than an interception and a few sacks taken, but the Saints weren't effective running the ball and their defense let them down.
The key impact from this game is that the Saints are now tied with the Packers for the top spot in the conference and the coveted first round bye in the playoffs. This is a big deal because Green Bay owns the tiebreaker, and both teams have pretty good chances of sweeping their last three games. The potential wild card teams they'd be facing off against aren't as tough as the AFC's in my opinion, but it's still a huge deal to have to play in the first round even after Drew Brees returns. Unfortunately for Philly, I think it's going to be too little, too late, but if they can rattle off two more wins and Washington loses their next two, the Eagles have the opportunity to win against the division rival in the final game of the season with the winner getting to represent the NFC East in the playoffs.
Washington Football Team - 23, San Francisco 49ers - 15
If you love defense, this was a beautiful game to watch. Washington won decisively despite totaling fewer than 100 rushing and passing yards. This is because their defense scored two touchdowns, 47-yard scoop and score and a 76-yard pick six. Alex Smith exited the game late in the first quarter with a calf injury, which also explains why their offensive totals were so unimpressive. But their defense came up big and dominated the Niners to put the Football Team a game ahead of New York in the division.
This game wasn't all that important to the Niners, who were already long shots to make the postseason, but it was huge for Washington who now looks like they could cause trouble in the playoffs strictly because of their defense. Ron Rivera has done a tremendous job in his first year with a failing franchise, and while their offense, even with Alex Smith, still leaves a lot to be desired, their defense is elite. Smith has a good chance of suiting up next week against the Seahawks, which will be Washington's toughest game remaining in the regular season. They'll probably only need to win at least one of their last three to maintain their place in the division as the Giants will probably lose their next two and the Eagles and Cowboys have too much ground to make up.
Pittsburgh Steelers -15, Buffalo Bills - 26
The Steelers have gone from undefeated and at the forefront of the AFC two weeks ago to 11-2 currently and competing to remain as the two seed. It has become evident that Pittsburgh was not as good as we all thought they were and they benefitted from a relatively easy schedule. The offenses in this game started very slowly, but a pick six in the last minute of the half put Buffalo ahead 9-7 at halftime. Josh Allen and crew came alive in the second half and they wound up trouncing the Steelers at home in the end.
Both Buffalo and Pittsburgh remain heavy favorites to win their respective divisions as they both hold two game leads with three games to play. But with the Steelers only leading the Bills by one game, I think it's pretty likely that the Bills jump up to the two seed by the start of the playoffs. The two teams would still be lined up to play each other in the second round regardless, but the first round matchups could be very important, though all potential wild card teams will surely be tough outs. The main point I took from this game is that the Bills are clearly the second best team in the conference right now and thus have the best chance of knocking off the Chiefs at the moment. I sill don't think that will happen, but only time will tell.
Baltimore Ravens - 47, Cleveland Browns - 42
This was the most exciting game of the year so far in my opinion. It featured a multitude of points, a thrilling return, and a terrible betting beat (or an amazing win depending on what side you found yourself on). The two teams combined for nine rushing touchdowns, which is tied for the most in a game in NFL history. They went back and forth in the first half, but the Ravens built a comfortable lead in the second half before Lamar Jackson ran to the locker room with "cramps," which most people assume meant he had to defecate.
After Baker Mayfield led back-to-back touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to take a one point lead, Baltimore backup quarterback Trace McSorley began an attempted game-winning drive. On third and short just in Cleveland territory, McSorley went down with a leg injury and was forced out of the game, leaving the Ravens with a fourth and five from the 44-yard line with no quarterback. Then, like a superhero coming to save the day, Lamar Jackson trotted out of the locker room and grabbed his helmet, ready to rescue the Ravens from their predicament. All he did was throw a 44-yard touchdown pass on the ensuing play. After the Browns marched down and scored in less than a minute to tie the game, Jackson brought Baltimore back to field goal range, and with two seconds left on the clock, Justin Tucker banged in a 55-yarder to lead by three. The game closed with the Ravens as a three-point favorite, so naturally, the Browns threw about ten laterals before getting pushed out of the back of the end zone to lose by five points (the Ravens at -2 was my Lock of the Week in my betting article so I was golden either way).
This was Baltimore's toughest remaining game on the schedule, and they are now in prime position to win their last three and finish at 11-5, likely getting them into the playoffs. I think the Ravens would have won comfortably in they didn't lose Jackson for two drives in the second half, which shows how important he is to this team. No team is going to want to encounter this Ravens team in the postseason assuming Jackson is healthy and relieved of waste. Despite the loss, Cleveland is still in great shape to to earn a wild card spot and they should be 11-4 when they face off against the Steelers in week 17. I would say they'll be in win or lose in that game, but they'll likely be playing for their seeding in that affair. The AFC North is looking like they'll get three teams in the playoffs, and we'll see if any of them can get past the Chiefs.
Written by Nick Swatson
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Expert Nick Swatson discusses all the news, predictions, and outcomes surrounding the NFL.