Contenders, Pretenders, & Dead-Enders: A Look At The NFL 2019 Home Stretch
The Thanksgiving holiday is more than a traditional NFL platform. Its placement at the end of November, coupled with the completion of the league's compulsory bye weeks in recent years, means the playoff picture is coming into focus. On the other end of the spectrum, preliminary draft position lists also crop up, reminding us that losses today can translate into better draft position in April.
With four weeks remaining in the regular season, every team has their own particular goals. Teams will be thrown into one of three categories; Contenders who have the pieces in place to go to Super Bowl LIV and hoist the Lombardi Trophy, Pretenders who look the part but suffer from a fatal flaw that will be their undoing, or Dead-Enders, whose focus will be on 2020. Have an issue with anything written here? Put me on blast on Twitter: @GridironEye. Here's the lists in no particular order:
New Orleans Saints (10-2) This is the most complete team in the league, capable of winning in any environment. If the Saints get the top seed in the NFC, they may be nigh impossible to defeat. The only loss the Sean Payton-Drew Brees Saints have suffered in the Superdome in January was last year's controversial NFC Championship Game. Do not bet on an encore.
Baltimore Ravens (10-2). The NFL's most explosive offense (33.8 points/game) led by the front runner for league MVP in QB Lamar Jackson, the Ravens look bulletproof. Their 20-17 victory over San Francisco was Baltimore's first game in six weeks decided by one score. Teams struggle to stay on the field with them. And their style of play can go anywhere. Will it take the Charmed City Blackbirds to Miami in February?
San Francisco 49ers (10-2) Like the Ravens, the Niners' run first offense and aggressive defense can travel anywhere. Up until this week, they held the top spot in the NFC, as their loss in Baltimore catapulted the Saints into the current one seed and put the 49ers behind the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West standings, thanks to a 'Hawks OT victory in Santa Clara. Their Week 17 rematch in the Emerald City could be for home field advantage throughout the playoffs, with the loser on the road the next week. Oh, and for those who insist on dismissing the 49ers? Their only losses are to teams that are each 10-2.
New England Patriots (10-2) The fixture of the postseason picture, the Patriots are here, reminding us all that they are the defending Super Bowl and 3-time AFC champions. New England is not garnering the headlines like other teams, but rest assured the Pats will be a direct factor in who will represent the AFC in Super Bowl LIV.
Seattle Seahawks (10-2) This is the head scratcher of the bunch. Yes, the defense is not the elite unit they were in the Legion of Boom days, but they are a ballhawking bunch (27 takeaways ranks Seattle 3rd in the league, while being tops with 16 fumble recoveries). And those extra possessions in the hands of MVP candidate Russell Wilson make for a lethal combination. The Seahawks' Week 17 clash with San Francisco in the CLink looms large.
Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) Don't let the record fool you. With Patrick Mahomes as the triggerman of this offense, they can turn any game into a shootout. And if KC's defense can just hold the line, the Chiefs could right a wrong from 11 months ago.
Buffalo Bills (9-3) The quietest good team in recent memory has the run offense and overall defense to make a Cinderella trip to the Big Dance. But the clock will strike midnight on the Bills because of QB Josh Allen, whose maturation, his pass selection process in particular, is still in progress.
Green Bay Packers (9-3) Yes, the Pack still have Aaron Rodgers, one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the league. But he is surrounded by wide receivers as green as grass and a defense that is as leaky as ever.
Houston Texans (8-4) With the talent this team has on both sides of the ball, the Texans should be on the short list of AFC contenders. Instead, Houston is leading an iffy AFC South and will more than likely have their hands full with the fifth seed, who is more than likely going to be the Bills. The Texans have hit their ceiling under Bill O'Brien and not reach the next level until he's gone.
Minnesota Vikings (8-4) The offense is dynamic with RB Dalvin Cook carrying the mail, a confident Kirk Cousins flinging the bean around the yard, and a defensive front four that is menacing to opposing passers. However, deficiencies on the offensive line and the secondary will do in the Purple and Gold.
Tennessee Titans (7-5) Ever since Ryan Tannehill took over for Marcus Mariota at quarterback, this has been a diametrically different squad. Tannehill is 5-1 as a starter, with the defense 7th in points allowed and 10th in rushing yards allowed. What may crush the Titans dreams is the closing schedule, which include two games against the Texans, a road trip to Oakland, and hosting the Saints. If Tennessee gets through that schedule and makes the playoffs, watch out.
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) Steeler fans have to be pulling their hair out. If the effort that the 2019 team has shown were integrated with the talent of 2018, they are a virtual lock to win Lombardi Trophy number 7. But now, the Steel City Stalwarts may need to exert such effort just to become cannon fodder for the more talented conference elite.
Indianapolis Colts (6-6) The NFL's scrappiest team is still alive in the playoff hunt. But like the Steelers, their talent deficiency and putrid placekicking game (Father Time gets us all, Adam Vinatieri) means the Colts will be left in the cold or vanquished in the Wild Card round.
Oakland Raiders (6-6) The good news is the Raiders are going the right direction as RB Josh Jacobs has shown the ability to be a star as the team heads to Las Vegas next year. That defense needs to be upgraded like yesterday. Yikes.
Los Angeles Rams (7-5) Yes Virginia, there is such a thing as a Super Bowl hangover. But a running attack that ranks 25th leaguewide (94.17 yards per game) and a -4 turnover differential have made the Rams a shell of their 2018 selves.
Chicago Bears (7-6) After winning three in a row, things are looking up for the Bears. Problem is, given the top heavy construct of the NFC this year, Chicago is only playing games for pride (barring catastrophe, of course).
Dallas Cowboys (6-7) Yes, the Cowboys lead the NFC East and are probably going to win the division and the home playoff game that goes with it. But after watching America's Team play as of late, it will be a moral victory if that entire Dallas team doesn't collectively pass out on the opening kickoff of their wild card game.
Philadelphia Eagles (5-7) One could point to the injuries in the secondary as a major factor for the Eagles' struggles this year, but offense's lackluster performance (namely wide receivers that couldn't catch a cold during a plague outbreak and the frustrations of QB Carson Wentz as a result) had just as much to say about it. But you know what's worse? That they could still win the NFC East. Seriously.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-7) Jameis Winston has made the case to both keep him or let him walk in March. But that defense (giving up 28.8 points/game, ranked 30th) probably makes general manager Jason Licht wonder if he can send that lot packing.
Carolina Panthers (5-7) The loss of Cam Newton to a Lisfranc injury disrupted the continuity of the team. While rookie backup Kyle Allen has looked fine, ownership wants success. Head coach Ron Rivera was sent packing, with plenty of speculation about the futures of Newton and GM Marty Hurney. We'll see what direction owner David Tepper wants to go.
Cleveland Browns (5-7) The hype train ran right smack into a rebar enforced cinder block wall. For all the hype that the Browns carried into the regular season, it became a train wreck when it was realized that the offensive line was woefully inadequate and the entire team seemed to lack any semblance of discipline. It's been bad enough that there's scuttlebutt that head coach Freddie Kitchens could be one & done. What an epic fail.
Denver Broncos (4-8) From Joe Flacco to Brandon Allen to Drew Lock, the quarterback carousel continues in the Mile High City. So far, the only thing we found out is Flacco needs the Ol' Yeller treatment, Allen is a project at best or expendable at worst, and the jury is out on Lock.
Jacksonville Jaguars (4-8) The bad news: the $88 million y'all dropped on Nick Foles may have been a bad investment, your defense is decaying, and head coach Doug Marrone could be on the chopping block. Good news? You may have tripped on your future leader under center in Gardner Minshew.
Los Angeles Chargers (4-8) Wow, was that a drop off of a cliff. From one game of winning the AFC West and making it to the Divisional round in 2018 to outright losing games for a myriad of reasons. Not the type of campaign a franchise should turn in before moving into their new palacial estate.
New York Jets (4-8) The hiring of head coach Adam Gase has been controversial since jump, and this season has not helped his case one bit. Yes, the Jets have enjoyed flashes of brilliance, but have looked downright awful at times. Don't be surprised if general manager Joe Douglas finds a way to sack Gase or walks because he can't.
Detroit Lions (3-8-1) Entering the year, the defense looked stable and the offense was in question. 13 weeks later, the offense is stable and the defense is beyond questionable. Head coach Matt Patricia & GM Bob Quinn are on the hot seat, but will probably sacrifice defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni to buy one more year.
Arizona Cardinals (3-8-1) Kyler Murray has shown promise that he can live up to the lofty labels of #1 overall draft pick and franchise quarterback. That defense needs to improve, from stem to stern.
Miami Dolphins (3-9) For a team that everybody wrote off, God bless them for the effort they put in week in and week out. If they keep this type of work ethic when those quality draft picks start developing, 2021 and beyond could get very interesting for the Aqua & Coral.
Atlanta Falcons (3-9) This could be a harbinger of things to come for the Dirty Birds, as their offensive signings have eaten up their cap and there's only so many good defenders in any draft. This walk in the wilderness could be a long one.
Washington Redskins (3-9) Because the football gods have a twisted sense of humor, the Redskins remain mathematically alive to win the NFC East. But they need to raze the organization all the way to fresh earth. Of course, that begs the question: can owner Daniel Snyder pull the trigger on giving a pink slip to president Bruce Allen?
New York Giants (2-10) This rebuild may take awhile, as the defense remains abysmal and the offensive line remains a sieve. Eli Manning will be history one way or the other after this season. Will head coach Pat Shurmur follow suit?
Cincinnati Bengals (1-11) P. U. With the Bengals being this bad, it leads one to ask a question: Were the Bengals intentionally tanking, or was this yet another case of owner/GM Mike Brown pinching a nickel so hard that it would make a buffalo fart?