Welcome to the latest edition of The Sunday Recap, a weekly column dedicated to thoughts on the previous day’s NFL action! Before I assess the playoff picture and offer my predictions for this year’s tournament, I want to run through the major developments from the final week of the regular season…
Let’s start with the big winner of Week 17: the Buffalo Bills
Breaking a seventeen-year playoff drought — especially after all hope appeared to be lost with under a minute remaining in the Cincinnati/Baltimore game — is certainly cause for celebration. Good for you, Buffalo. Enjoy it because, well, moments like yesterday don’t necessarily come around too often.
Want to know what amazes me most about Buffalo, though? People forget: the Bills seemed set on tanking the 2017 season. Early in August, new G.M. Brandon Beane shocked many in the league by trading two of his better players, receiver Sammy Watkins and cornerback Ronald Dearby, for draft picks. But the shakeups didn’t end there, as Buffalo subsequently dumped promising young linebacker Reggie Ragland and, later, defensive anchor Marcell Dareus for more selections in next year’s draft.
Turns out the Bills’ front office knew what it was doing, but those moves initially made many people skeptical: Buffalo was slated by ESPN, for instance, as the 26th-best team in football before the season began. But I suppose the Bills exemplify one of the larger themes of the 2017 season. After all, Buffalo was one of five teams ranked in the bottom 10 of ESPN’s preseason power rankings that finished above .500 this year. Three of these other teams — the Saints (23rd), Rams (27th), and Jaguars (28th) — will play on Wild Card weekend; only the Chargers (24th) missed the playoffs despite having a winning record.
Speaking of the Chargers, though, I bet they must be aggravated that a team they beat by a relatively comfortable score of 54-24 made the playoffs over them despite the fact each team had the same record (9-7). But it’s not like Buffalo catches many breaks, as evidenced by the fact that LeSean McCoy could miss the franchise’s first playoff game since 1999 after being carted off yesterday with an ankle injury. So, to repeat, I hope Buffalo fans enjoyed yesterday’s victory. The cinderella run will likely end next weekend if McCoy is out.
However, at least Buffalo can take solace in the fact that it made the playoffs. Three of Sunday’s four biggest losers can not say the same.
Week 17’s biggest loser: The Baltimore Ravens
The Bills, of course, were the beneficiaries of Baltimore’s epic collapse. It was the kind of loss that could haunt this Ravens team for years. Despite surprisingly little support from its home crowd amid freezing temperatures, Baltimore was able to recover from a two-touchdown deficit in the second half to take a 27-24 lead midway through the fourth quarter. If you said to me beforehand that the Ravens would score 27 points in this game, I would have told you they would win easily. After all, Baltimore’s defense had surrendered just the fifth fewest points entering Week 17; and it was playing a Bengals’ offense that not only had relatively little to play for, but ranked just 26th in scoring.
Then Tyler Boyd happened. And after one fourth-and-12 play in a win-and-your-in game, the Ravens saw their playoff chances inexplicably drop from 91% to essentially zero, removing any possibility of a dark horse Super Bowl run. I certainly wouldn’t make the impulsive decision to fire the respected John Harbaugh after this debacle, but the fact is this: Baltimore has now missed the playoffs in three consecutive seasons (along with four of the last five). The Ravens at least have to think about moving on from Harbaugh depending on their performance in the 2018 season.
Loser #2: The Seattle Seahawks
Needing a win to have a chance to make the postseason for the sixth consecutive season, Seattle’s offense came out against an Arizona team with nothing to play for…and gained zero yards of offense in the first quarter. Zero.
Things got a little better for the Seahawks as the game progressed (did they have anywhere else to go?). They fought back to take a late lead over the Cardinals before Drew Stanton, of all people, led a game-winning drive to put Arizona in front once again. As usual, Russell Wilson did all he could to put Seattle in a position to win, but Blair Walsh fittingly concluded the Seahawks’ first playoff-less season since 2011 with a missed field goal attempt that would’ve given Seattle the victory.
Sure, the Seahawks still wouldn’t have made the postseason due to Atlanta’s victory over Carolina. But this loss — their fourth in their last five games at CenturyLink Field — underscores how Seattle has lost its identity as one of the NFL’s premier franchises. The Seahawks enter the new year in desperate need to overhaul an atrocious offensive line and upgrade a running game that has sorely missed Marshawn Lynch. More distressing, though, is the reality that the depleted Legion of Boom may never be the same after significant injuries to both Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, as well as recent statements from Earl Thomas hinting at a potentially imminent departure.
Taken together, I’m declaring the Seahawks’ terrific run as one of the NFL’s premier franchises over, particularly since two upstarts within their own division — Los Angeles and San Francisco — are poised to take their place.
Loser #3: The Carolina Panthers
The Panthers are one of the big losers of Week 17 not because they missed an opportunity to host a home playoff game thanks to New Orleans’ surprising loss. It’s the way their offense looked. Cam Newton’s stats from yesterday: 14/34 (started the game 0/9) with 3 interceptions. This guy actually won an MVP award? Moreover, Newton had absolutely no connection with his top target, Greg Olsen, who had just 1 reception on 9 targets.
Newton, for whatever reason, usually responds well after he plays horribly. But the Panthers will encounter a raucous environment next week at New Orleans, who swept them in the regular season. And based on what I saw Sunday, it’s hard to imagine Carolina making a surprise playoff run.
Loser #4: The Cleveland Browns
Well, I can’t discuss Week 17’s biggest losers without mentioning…the Browns. Can it get any worse than yesterday for Cleveland? Playing a Pittsburgh team that rested practically its entire team, the Browns still couldn’t find a way to win, even though it had multiple chances late in the fourth quarter.
Look, is it Hue Jackson’s fault that Corey Coleman dropped that fourth down throw while the Browns were driving late? And can he control the fact that Duke Johnson fumbled early in the fourth as Cleveland was driving for another scoring chance? No and no. But I’m sorry, Hue…your record is 1-31 in two seasons and your team couldn’t beat the Pittsburgh JV team yesterday. You also had to have some say in the decision to pass on both Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson in favor of the likes of Cody Kesler and DeShone Kizer.
Simply put, a coach who presides over a historical level of ineptitude doesn’t deserve to return.
Now onto the playoffs…
Before going into my round-by-round predictions, some quick thoughts on the field. First, the AFC bracket. With respect to the first round, my assessment can be trimmed to two words: it stinks. STINKS!
As I said earlier, I’m happy for Buffalo; and I’m happy for the likes of Jacksonville and Tennessee, who haven’t been to the playoffs in ten and nine years respectively. But from a ratings perspective? These Wild Card games are almost as bad as last year’s slate, which featured Matt McGloin battling Brock Osweiler and Matt Moore’s Dolphins traveling to Pittsburgh.
However, at least the divisional round offers some intriguing possibilities. Assuming everything holds up, we’ll have two compelling rematches featuring top seeds that have already been beaten thoroughly — on their home fields, no less — by their visiting opponents. New England vs Kansas City is undoubtedly the sexiest matchup given the Chiefs’ convincing victory in the season opener, but Pittsburgh/Jacksonville may offer an even greater chance of an upset based on how the Jaguars forced Ben Roethlisberger into five interceptions in their 30-9 win back in October. Jacksonville hosting Kansas City in the AFC Championship? You never know…
The NFC bracket, meanwhile, sets up for even more drama. Admittedly it would be far more fascinating to see Carson Wentz and Aaron Rodgers in the fold. Regardless, it will still be interesting to see what happens to Philadelphia, the most vulnerable one seed in recent memory. I certainly could’ve included the Eagles in my aforementioned loser segment based on Nick Foles’ latest performance. Though he only played a few series’, Wentz’s replacement followed his awful performance last Monday against the Raiders with a 4-11 day against the Cowboys that included an interception.
Given Philly’s grave concerns at quarterback, Minnesota enters the tournament as the clear favorite to win the NFC. After all, the Vikings are 11-1 since Week 4 and rank 1st in total defense. And as the number two seed, they probably won’t have to leave home for the whole postseason given the likelihood that the Eagles are upset in the divisional round.
But the NFC still remains wide open, even though Minnesota is the undisputed favorite. A team to watch is the Falcons. Despite finishing with a relatively moderate record, Pro Football Focus rated Atlanta as having the third-highest graded offense and fourth-highest graded defense in the league. In other words, the defending NFC champs are stronger than their 10-6 record indicates. And though the Rams, a definitive threat to win Super Bowl LII in their own right, are a difficult Wild Card matchup, a win would give Atlanta the opportunity to play Philadelphia in the Divisional rather than Minnesota. Simply put, another appearance in at least the NFC Championship is within reach for Matt Ryan and company.
So will Minnesota become the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium? Will major upsets occur in the AFC playoffs? Without further ado, here is my 2018 NFL playoff bracket. Note: I’m reserving the right to change my Wild Card predictions as I do more research ahead of the release of my official weekly predictions.
Wild Card Round
#5 Tennessee vs #4 Kansas City Saturday, 4:20 PM ET
The Chiefs have laid their share of eggs this season. They had one stretch, for instance, where they lost three consecutive games to the Giants, Bills (at home), and Jets. Nonetheless, I still like Kansas City’s offensive personnel with the likes of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Kareem Hunt. I also don’t trust Marcus Mariota (27th in quarterback rating) to pull an upset on the road.
Pick: Kansas City
#6 Atlanta vs #3 Los Angeles Saturday, 8:15 PM ET
The Rams are superb in all facets, but one concern for them in the playoffs is their kicking game: All-Pro Greg Zuerlein was recently put on IR with a back injury. Moreover, the Falcons have just as much talent as LA, and they undoubtedly have more playoff experience. I’ll still hesitantly side with the Rams for now, but I may ultimately pick the Falcons come Saturday.
Pick: Los Angeles
#6 Buffalo vs #3 Jacksonville Sunday, 1:05 PM ET
This prediction will depend on LeSean McCoy’s availability. If he’s healthy, I could see Buffalo stealing a victory given Blake Bortles’ recent woes (5 interceptions in his last two games). But points will still be hard to come by for the Bills’ pedestrian offense against Jacksonville’s excellent D.
#5 Carolina vs #4 New Orleans Sunday, 4:40 PM ET
It’s not easy to beat the same team three times in a season, as the Saints will attempt to do. But, as mentioned, there are too many concerns with Cam Newton and the Carolina offense for me to pick them to beat New Orleans in what should be a raucous environment.
Pick: New Orleans
#4 New Orleans vs #1 Philadelphia Saturday 4:35 PM ET
Coincidentally, Drew Brees and Nick Foles met in the 2013 Wild Card round back when Chip Kelly was coaching the Eagles to a surprise division title behind Foles’ miraculous 27 TD/2 INT season. That seems so long ago now, though. Perhaps the Eagles’ defense can keep them in the game, but I can’t see Foles and Philly advancing to the NFC Championship no matter who they play.
Pick: New Orleans
#4 Kansas City over #1 New England Saturday 8:15 PM ET
Should this matchup scare New England? Yeah, a little bit. The Chiefs dominated the season opener and their key offensive players are all healthy. But the Patriots’ D drastically improved after the season’s first four weeks, finishing with the NFL’s fifth-best scoring defense. The Pats should also get a boost from the likes of Chris Hogan, James White, Rex Burkhead, and defensive tackle Alan Branch, each of whom project to return from injury.
Pick: New England
#3 Jacksonville vs #2 Pittsburgh Sunday 1:00 PM ET
I’m tempted to predict an upset, but I can’t bring myself to pick Blake Bortles to beat Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. However, I wonder what Antonio Brown’s status will be for the Divisional round coming off a calf injury. Yet even with Brown, the Steelers were suffocated by the Jaguars’ ferocious defense when these teams met in October. I think Jacksonville will at least give the Steelers a serious scare.
#3 Los Angeles vs #2 Minnesota Sunday 4:40 PM ET
The Vikings’ defense was one of the few teams to successfully contain Todd Gurley this season, as they held him to just 37 rushing yards in Minnesota’s 24-7 win over Los Angeles in mid-November. I bet Mike Zimmer can replicate this same game plan.
AFC Championship: New England over Pittsburgh
If Week 15’s thrilling game between these two sides didn’t clue you in, let me be the one to say it: clearly the Steelers just can’t find a way to beat the Patriots. Perhaps a healthy Antonio Brown can finally provide Pittsburgh an edge, but the odds of any team outscoring Tom Brady and company in Foxboro this January are still low.
NFC Championship: New Orleans over Minnesota
I’m conflicted…my brain says to pick the terrific Vikings to win the NFC, largely because of their relatively easy road to the Super Bowl. However, I’ve touted the Saints as my pick to win the NFC since midseason, and I would hate to abandon that pick and then, in the event New Orleans actually makes the Super Bowl, shamelessly hop back on the bandwagon. So I’ll put my chips in the Drew Brees pot. After all, he is the best quarterback on the NFC side of the draw; and the future Hall of Famer has the best running game he’s ever had in Pro Bowlers Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.
Super Bowl LII: New England vs New Orleans
What a matchup this would be. Tom Brady vs Drew Brees: a quarterback matchup that will go down as one of the best in Super Bowl history. The Saints have the potential to expose New England’s relatively weak run defense, but the Patriots should still have the edge in a high-scoring affair, as evidenced by how they put up 36 points on Sean Payton’s squad when the two sides met in Week 2. That September meeting may not ultimately have much relevance, though. Both defenses have dramatically improved after early-season struggles, with each finishing in the top ten in scoring defense.
However, particularly since I’m still hesitant about picking the Saints to even win the NFC, they are not my pick to win Super Bowl LII. Thus, I’m confidently picking New England to claim its sixth Lombardi trophy.
Regardless of my opinion as to who will win Super Bowl LII, it should be another terrific postseason. Stay tuned throughout January for articles leading up to each week of the playoffs!