Week 14 - The Playoff Chase Hots Up

Dec. 06, 2017

Good afternoon and welcome to a fourteenth week of 'An Englishman's Thoughts from Abroad'. With the playoff chase very much on, division battles going right to the wire and players fighting for their NFL lives, there is a lot still to play for this year. This week I will be giving an update on the Packers playoff hopes, the brutal match-up between the Bengals & Steelers, an overview of some of the key undecided divisional races and lots more. Let's start-off however with a positive story coming out of Bay Area...

1) Jimmy Garopollo gets his first win and proves he learned a lot with Belichick and Brady

So the new face of the 49ers franchise got his first win as starting quarterback last Sunday against the Bears. Granted his opposition was nothing to write home about, but his demeanour on the field was certainly noticeable for those watching the game and will certainly get a big thumbs up from the 49ers coaching staff. With the 49ers down by two with just over five minutes to play, Garopollo led his team down the field in a controlled drive that ate up all but four seconds of the game clock, giving the 49ers a chance to win the game with a short field goal as time expired. What was particularly impressive about his play was his control of the offense, his awareness to keep the ball inbounds once they were within field goal range and his calm demeanour in a pressure packed situation. Clearly he has learned a great deal from Brady and Belichick during his three plus seasons in New England with this perhaps being the greatest positive for the 49ers front office. A win this season certainly isn't too important in the grand scheme of things, but finding a winner in the game’s most important position, that could vault the 49ers back into contention quicker than you might imagine.

2) With one week until Aaron Rodgers return, can the Packers miraculously get out of trouble and make the playoffs again this year?

News has been spreading this week that Aaron Rodgers is likely to make a return from the injured reserve next week if the Packers are in playoff contention and as luck would have it, they are managing to hold on by the skin of their teeth. With Brett Hundley under center the Packers have gone 2-5 but with a match-up against the Browns this weekend, he could easily leave the Packers three wins away from a playoff berth. Much credit for their turnaround in recent weeks should go the Mike McCarthy and his coaching staff who have managed to find ways to get their offense to work in Rodgers absence. With the adoption of some read option elements, a further emphasis on the running game and quick fire passing game, Hundley has the chance to lead Green Bay to another win, leaving Rodgers three games to decide their playoff fate. Granted they are not easy games with match-ups against Carolina, Minnesota and Detroit to come, but one can certainly say the Packers are going to influence a few teams playoffs chances no matter what. If they were to make the playoffs it would be the second season in a row where they have miraculously dug themselves out of a hole and with a potential hot hand by that point, the Packers would become a tough out in the NFC playoff picture.

3) With another loss, is it time for the Chiefs to consider Patrick Mahomes under center?

Another loss for Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs leaves many wondering what happened to the darlings of the NFL from September and October. Smith is hardly to blame for their calamitous fall from grace, although his play has certainly worsened (turnovers and lack of big downfield plays). With first round pick Patrick Mahomes waiting in the wings, is now the time to make a change under center? The simplest answer is no given that the Chiefs are still leading the AFC West Divisional Race and Smith is still likely their best chance at winning. What this question does bring up however is Smith's longer term future in Kansas City. This collapse especially if it leads to no playoff berth perhaps epitomises Smith's NFL career and with a prized talent waiting in the wings, his leash (so to speak) must be getting shorter each week. The other thing in favour of a switch to Mahomes is the losses are piling up, through no fault of his own Smith may lose his job simply for change's sake. This situation certainly bears watching and with if there is another loss this week, the clamour will likely to start to grow in favour of Patrick Mahomes.

4) Can the new brand of Seahawks Football continue to challenge the best in the NFL?

With the Seahawks knocking off the best team in the NFL last week, Russel Wilson and company made a major statement to all those who were willing to take notice. The Seahawks are still dangerous despite their injuries and come what may they are likely to be threat in the NFC playoffs. For many their success on the offensive side of the ball will come as no surprise. Wilson has for a long time been considered one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and perhaps the best QB in a broken down play situation. What has been impressive this year is where he has managed to do the damage from. With an improved offensive line, Wilson has been able to throw from a clean pocket more often this season allowing him to hit the best receiving corps he has ever had in stride. With the time he has been afforded Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, Paul Richardson and Jimmy Graham have been causing match-up nightmares for many teams and this is likely to continue. There has been much talk of a change in philosophy in Seattle this season and that is certainly true to a point. What is perhaps more accurate is the talent of the offense has now simply caught up to the level of play the defense has been at for years. Even with injuries their approach this season would seem to suggest that the very best teams in football will struggle to keep pace with the Seahawks and even if they don't win their division, they will be a team that no team in the NFL will want to face come playoff crunch time.

5) Is it time for the NFL to consider stronger punishments for rule breaking on the field after the Bengals-Steelers game on Monday night?

Monday night exposed some of the darker side of NFL rivalries. It was clear for all to see that both the Bengals and Steelers rosters were playing parts of the game outside of the rules and when that happens players are likely to get hurt. Everybody loves an NFL rivalry game (myself included) but when a team's quarterback describes the game as a 60 minute fight where he's not sure whether players are going to get hurt, for me something has got to change. Yes there is plenty of bad blood between these two teams over the past five years or so (Bengal playoff losses) but some of the cheap shots and QB hits seen on Monday night have no place in the NFL today. Hopefully in the league offices in New York this week, the NFL decision makers are having a good look at what happened and deciding some rule changes for next season. First among those should be helmet to helmet hits, why not ban them with an immediate ejection from the game and teach players to tackle with the shoulder like they do in rugby. For a game that should be incredibly aware of the effects of brain trauma on athletes, this rule is a no brainer for those looking at the longevity of the NFL in the future.

6) With Ben McAdoo and Jerry Reese fired, what is next for the Giants? And why has Eli Manning been named starting QB?

So on Tuesday the NFL coaching carousel started with the news that Ben McAdoo and Jerry Reese were fired from their respective positions with immediate effect. The news will come as no surprise as for many this was going to happen at some point given the direction that the Giants season took. What will be interesting now is seeing how the rest of the Giants players and coaching staff react. With defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo taking over as interim head coach there are some interesting storylines for the Giants to follow. As a two-time Superbowl hero for the Giants does he have a realistic shot at the job? Can anyone get their offensive line to improve over the next few weeks? How will the new regime deal with the overloaded cap sheet that they inherit especially on defense? Why is Eli Manning starting again? Plenty of the above questions will take time to answer so I will leave my readers to ponder those questions for now. The final question in regards to Eli probably comes from two angles. The first is the respect he has gained over the years within the Giants organisation, the second is that he gives them their best chance to win. As discussed last week that may seem counter intuitive for the future, but as most know the NFL is a win now league and with plenty of jobs on the line (including the interim head coaches), it is easy to see why this decision was made.

7) State of the Franchise: Denver Broncos

As another week winds towards the culmination of the playoff race it is important to take stock of teams who are not in playoff contention this year and where their franchise is likely headed in the future. This week's AFC franchise is the Denver Broncos. In what can be described as an incredibly disappointing season for the team based in the mile high city, it is clear to most and especially GM John Elway where their season slipped away. As has already been mentioned the Broncos QB situation has been a disaster this season with none of the three quarterbacks on the roster providing any real semblance of stability at the game's most important position. Elway must have known things were likely to be difficult post Manning's retirement, which is why he likely drafted Paxton Lynch in the first round of the 2016 draft but since then QB decisions have largely been mystifying. The letting go of Brock Osweiler, the insistence that Trevor Siemian was the man and the inability of Paxton Lynch to get on the field, doomed a team with a Superbowl calibre defense. Let's not forget that this roster was largely unchanged from the team that tore apart the Carolina Panthers 19 months ago and that is where the positives for the future lie. If Elway can remedy the Broncos offensive woes (starting with QB, then RB, then OL), there is a good chance this team can contend in a hurry. With a high first round draft pick and plenty of draft capital it is certainly possible for the Broncos to bring about a quick turnaround, what they have discovered over the past two seasons though is what happens when you don't get a hall of fame quarterback falling into your lap.

8) State of the Franchise: Chicago Bears

It is not a surprise to many that the Bears have struggled this season, given their performance over the last two years or so. This year was again considered a rebuilding year for a team needing to retool on talent throughout the roster. There are certainly a few positives for the Bears to take away so far this season with the performance of their running back duo, improvement on team defense and attitude of rookie QB Mitch Trubisky among the most obvious. What is however blindingly obvious to most NFL observers is how much further they have yet to come. Trubisky is severely limited by the abilities of his offensive line and receivers, and while the defense as a whole has improved there is still plenty of spots where an influx of talent is still very much required. With a well-respected coaching and management team and plenty of draft capital still around despite the trade for Trubisky, the future is certainly looking positive for the Bears. The key to that phrase is future however, with the talent that is currently compiled the Bears are realistically unlikely to contend for at least another season while they round out the cracks left by years of almost competing in the NFC North.

9) Key divisional race: AFC West

With some divisional races going right down to the wire, these next two theme points are here to highlight the closest divisional races in the NFL:

The AFC West has provided a huge amount of drama for NFL fans this year with the Chiefs racing out to a massive divisional lead only to have it slip away after six losses in the last seven games. With three teams now tied for first place in the division, it is now reasonable to argue that winning the division is now the only way for any AFC West teams to make the playoffs. With that in mind let's look at the state of each of those teams contending for the division, highlighting the key issues for each team going into the final four weeks of the season:

-Chiefs: The Chiefs collapse (as highlighted by the theme earlier about Alex Smith) is in some ways an epitome of Alex Smith's career in the NFL. He like his team has always had bundles of talent and shown it when it doesn't necessarily matter in the regular season, but when push comes to shove he would always fade under the spotlight. Fortunately for Kansas City fans the season may not end this way and they actually still control their destiny. With match-ups against the Raiders and Chargers at home in the next fortnight, two wins could almost get them over the line. However, the same can also be said for their opposition. With games against teams with losing records otherwise, the next two weeks will define their playoff lives.

-Chargers: For a team that started 0-4 the Chargers are now arguably the hottest team in the AFC West having gone 6-2 over the last eight weeks. With a roster that is led by veteran quarterback Phillip Rivers and a defense that is book-ended by two of the best defensive pass rushers in the league, the Chargers are suddenly proving they are a force to be reckoned with. That is good news if you are a Chargers fan as they have one of the toughest run-ins in football to end the season. With games against the Redskins, Chiefs, Jets and Raiders over the last four weeks, they will certainly have deserved their playoff spot if they get there. Like the Chiefs if they win all four of their games they are in and although they have been the best team in the division over the past eight weeks, their route to the playoffs certainly seems more challenging.

-Raiders: Last but certainly not least in this division race are the Oakland Raiders. With inconsistency, injuries and tempers harming their record to date, the key for the Raiders will be to get rid of the distractions and just play solid football over the season’s final four weeks. Also controlling their destiny with a tough schedule of the Chiefs, Cowboys, Eagles and Chargers in the final four weeks of the season, the Raiders likely have the toughest route to the division title. However nothing comes easy for Raiders fans so a little bit of adversity could potentially spark the Raiders and a key match-up with the Chiefs this weekend is going to push one team forward in the race for the AFC West playoff spot.

With the easiest schedule remaining the Chiefs would probably be the favourites for many NFL predictors but given their form and the fact they may be able to afford one loss to a non-divisional foe, I will predict that the Chargers go on to win the AFC West this season.

10) Key divisional race: NFC South

The NFC South is perhaps the toughest division in football this season, with three team’s right in the thick of the playoff mix both within their division and wider NFC playoff race. What is undisputed is whichever team makes it to the playoffs will deserve it given the strength of schedule each contender has left and for those teams that do survive the rosters blend of high powered offense and opportunistic defense is likely to unsettle any opposition they may face. Let's take a closer look at each roster's chances:

-Saints: With a massive win against their division rival Panthers last week and the leading record in the NFC South, the Saints are certainly in the driving seat for the division title. With a multi-dimensional offense led by Drew Brees and his fearsome running back tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, the Saints have stood out as a threat to score from anywhere on the field and potentially more importantly they have the ability to keep opposing teams off the field. With two match-ups against the Falcons, and games against the Jets and Bucs to also come, the Saints will clinch their division if they win all their divisional games. It's a tough ask but expect the Saints to make the playoffs after two consecutive 7-9 seasons.

-Panthers: Though inconsistent on offense the Panthers have managed to find ways to win and they hold a one game advantage over their rival Falcons. Key to the Panther playoff push will be the performance of the offense which has struggled at times due to issues along the offensive line. With games against the Vikings, Packers, Bucs and Falcons they will have definitely deserved a playoff spot if they get there. While they don't control their destiny within their division, with games against three other NFC playoff contenders, if they win their remaining games they are all but in the playoffs.

-Falcons: The Falcons have largely been crippled so far by the form at home and the performance of their 2016 leading offense. If the Falcons intend to make the playoffs with the toughest remaining schedule in the NFL they will have to be able to score on their opposition, whilst relying on their defense to force some much needed turnovers. With two games against the Saints, and a game each against the Bucs and Panthers, they still strangely control their own playoff destiny. A win on Sunday against the Saints would certainly make the playoff race more exciting and is probably needed if the Falcons intend to be in the playoffs this year.

A very exciting divisional race especially considering all three teams could theoretically make the playoffs. Current positioning would suggest the Saints are in the driving seat for the division, with the Panthers and Falcons best chances coming via a wildcard berth. However, with all teams playing other potential NFC playoff opponents a win for their side may have a big impact on both the divisional and overall playoff race this season. If you are looking for nail biting drama, there is at least one divisional game each week to enjoy in the NFC South with playoff lives on the line.

Players of the Week:

Offensive player of the week: Russel Wilson (QB, Seahawks) - Important day for the Seahawks QB in a game which they couldn't afford to lose. Wilson will have days where he lights up the stats sheet more, but what was so impressive was his command of the offense against the hottest team in the NFL. In a game they had to win, he came up trumps and dominated more than the 24-10 score-line suggested. That's great news if you are a Seahawks fan.

Defensive player of the week: Eric Weddle (Safety, Ravens) - Ever since leaving San Diego, Weddle has largely been proving to everyone why he is still one of the best players in his position in the NFL. On Sunday in a game that was vital to their playoff chances, Weddle had two key moments in the game. The first a strip sack of Stafford which the Ravens recovered, the second an interception which he returned for an insurance touchdown. A stellar day from a stellar safety.

Score Predictions:

Record last week: 13-3

Overall record since week 1: 67%

NO@ATL: 30-33; A fantastic NFC South match-up with the playoffs and divisional race very much on the line for both teams. Expect plenty of offensive fireworks in this one, with the team that is able to get out to a lead making sure they do not take their foot off the gas pedal. Both teams are capable of winning this one and most would probably back the Saints, but with their season on the line I'm going to give the edge to the Falcons.

IND@BUF: 14-28; With the Colts very much looking to next season and the Bills needing to cling on to their playoff lives, I'm going to give the edge to Buffalo. However, with a brewing QB situation and a potential injury to Tyrod Taylor expect this game to be closer than many might expect.

MIN@CAR: 23-17; Minnesota proved last week in Atlanta that their defense can be dominant anywhere in the NFL and their offense can make just enough plays to get by. Coming up against a Panthers team that is still inconsistent, I'd expect the Vikings to make the most of the chances they create on both sides of the ball.

CHI@CIN: 14-24; The Bengals again proved on Monday night why they are one of the NFL's most frustrating teams. They were shutting out the Steelers for almost half of the game, until discipline and penalties let the Steelers back into it. Fortunately for them the Bears are not the Steelers and I'd expect them to cause too many issues for the Bears to handle in the game.

GB@CLE: 23-17; A potential upset game for the Packers here. Granted the Browns have looked pretty average for the last month or so, but the law of NFL averages suggests they are due a win at some point soon. It is important for Brett Hundley & company to stick the course, keeping using their 'new' read-option scheme to their advantage and provide Aaron Rodgers the best chance to compete for a playoff spot when he is back from injury. The Packers should win this one, but don't be surprised if the game is closer than you think.

SF@HOU: 21-24; A tough game to call given the injuries that the Texans are currently dealing with. However, given they are at home and looked better against a decent Titans side last week I am going to give them the edge. Don't be surprised if the 49ers continue their good vibes and sneak this one on the road though.

OAK@KC: 28-14; After their monster collapse over the last seven weeks or so, it is hard to see the Chiefs regaining their composure and division lead. This week's match-up is vital if they intend to do so, but I think the Raiders have too much talent for the Chiefs to keep up in this one.

DET@TB: 27-21; The ever frustrating Lions proved again last week that inconsistency may be their downfall in the playoff race this year. If they intend to remain in the playoff race this season, this is a game they must win. The Lions certainly have the talent to win this one, with the mess on the Bucs side-line also potentially proving that this game may just go in favour of the Lions.

DAL@NYG: 31-21; The Cowboys kept their season alive last week against the Redskins through the use of their running game and expect a lot more of that this weekend. In New York one would usually argue that this is a game they might lose, but given the firings of most of the Giants coaching staff during the week, I'd expect the Cowboys to win this one to keep their thin playoff hopes alive.

TEN@ARI: 31-21; A tough match-up for a Titans team that is currently leading its division. With the Titans proving last week that they can get past teams with impressive defenses, I'd expect Marcus Mariota and the rest of the Titans offense to provide the edge in this game. If David Johnson and Carson Palmer were fit, there may have been a different victor in this game.

NYJ@DEN: 23-14; The Jets have proven to many this season that they are a much tougher out of games than almost everyone predicted. The Broncos on the other hand have been incredibly disappointing, with their quarterback play causing all kinds of issues. With that in mind, I'd expect the Jets to grab another win on the road in this one.

WAS@LAC: 17-23; An intriguing match-up between two sides whose records don't perhaps do their play this season justice. With the Redskins largely out of the playoff hunt, I am going to give the edge to the Chargers who know that if they keep winning, the AFC West is still very much theirs for the taking.

SEA@JAX: 27-21; An extremely tough match-up for the Jags who are vying for their first playoff berth in 17 years. The Jags are perhaps built on the blueprint of the Seahawks from five or six years ago as they are led by a truly dominant defense, with an offense that largely controls the football. Sadly for them they are coming up against a team with one of the best quarterbacks in football, with a defense that is still not afraid of applying some pressure. The Jags may be able to slow down Russel Wilson and company for a bit, but the key difference maker in this one may be the Seahawks ability to force Blake Bortles into making some errors.

PHI@LAR: 30-27; A game with massive playoff implications regarding seeding. Coming off a tough loss to the Seahawks last week, the Eagles will be wanting to prove that they are still the best team in the NFC. The Rams will certainly provide a test with the most improved offense in football being backed up by a playoff calibre defense coordinated by the timeless Wade Phillips. The multi-dimensional nature of the Eagles offense could be the difference maker here, but don't be surprised if the Rams somehow edge this one at home.

BAL@PIT: 21-24; A fantastic match-up between two divisional rivals. Big Ben and co proved last week that they can dig themselves out of hole when the situation requires. At home in a big divisional rivalry game, I'd expect the Steelers offense to provide the edge in what should be a great game.

NE@MIA: 31-17; In other circumstances Rob Gronkowski's suspension may have affected the Patriots but with the best offensive weapons Brady has had in years (including the recently signed Martellus Bennett) and a defense that has drastically improved since their September slump, I'd expect Tom Brady & company to win this one. Being a divisional game, this one is likely to be closer than the talent on show suggests, but New England need another win before they head to Pittsburgh next week.