Photo via Sports Illustrated

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Playoff Football

We’re coming up on halfway through December. The holiday season is here. NFL Football is being played on Saturday and Sunday. Head coaches are already getting fired. All of that means just one thing: the playoffs are upon us. Week 15 provides us a smorgasbord of games featuring teams fighting for positioning in their conference’s postseason standings, if not their playoff lives outright. You could very legitamately make the case that the NFL’s five best teams, and seven of the best ten teams, are all in marquee matchups this weekend. It’s beginning to look a lot like playoff football. So let’s get to picking.

Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City (-3.5)

The irony in this matchup is that these are the two teams in the AFC with the best records, but only one of them is “guaranteed” a playoff spot.

The Chiefs are an AFC-best 11-2, but the Chargers are right on their heels with a 10-3 record; Los Angeles has a full game lead over both the New England Patriots and Houston Texans, and as well as a better conference record (which would be the head-to-head tiebreaker since Los Angeles hasn’t played either of them) than both.

But given what’s at stake overall on Thursday night, Kansas City has to take care of business if they want a realistic chance of achieving their postseason aspirations. With a win over the Chargers, the Chiefs will secure both the AFC West division title, as well as home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Considering that Kansas City is currently 6-0 when playing at Arrowhead Stadium (one of only two teams in the AFC with an undefeated record at home), ensuring that any of their opponents have to come to Kansas City and beat them in their own house is huge. That notion is compounded when you think about the Chiefs potentially – or likely – having to face the Patriots in the postseason. New England is the other team that’s undefeated at home this year, and virtually impossible to beat in Foxborough in the playoffs. Forcing New England to come to Kansas City and beat them changes circumstances considerably, especially considering the Patriots have a losing record on the road this year.

But, again, beating the Chargers – even with the game being at home – is easier said than done. The Chiefs might have the best record overall in the AFC, but the Chargers have a better record than the Chiefs since the end of September. Since Week 3, the Chargers have lost one game – and that was a one-point loss against a division rival (Denver) on the road.

Patrick Mahomes might’ve solidified his position as the favorite for the 2018 NFL MVP Award, but Phillip Rivers has now emerged as the dark horse candidate who could give Mahomes the biggest run for the money in the award race. Given that the Chargers’ defense allows the 7th-lowest passing average to the quarterbacks they’ve played this season, if Rivers and the Chargers were to go into Arrowhead and beat Mahomes and the Chiefs, it would not only throw the AFC playoff picture in flux but maybe the MVP award race as well.

It just feels like a year when these two teams split the home-and-home series they’ll play. Kansas City should come out of this game with a win, although it might come with some last-minute theatrics (as is apt to happen when the Chargers play any game). To that end, it feels like this game might come down to a field goal’s worth of difference, which is why you should take the points if you’re getting the same 3.5 point spread that we’re seeing as of Wednesday evening.

Pick: Los Angeles (+3.5)

Dallas at Indianapolis (-3)

You could dub this matchup as two teams that were all but left for dead over the first few weeks of the season, but now find themselves both in the thick of their respective conference’s playoff race and with the designations of “the team that nobody wants to face” if – or when? – they do make the playoffs.

Last weekend, the Indianapolis Colts ended the 10-game winning streak of the Houston Texans, which was the longest active streak in the league. Will they knock off the team that’s arguably the hottest in the league right now as an encore performance?

That’s much easier said than done. Even though it took them until overtime to secure the win, the Dallas Cowboys ran 93 plays, racked up 576 yards, and held the ball on offense for over 45 minutes against Philadelphia last Sunday. Defensively, the Cowboys allowed the Eagles to convert on third down just one time successfully. In reality, Dallas remains a defense-first team, even though everyone talks about quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott leads the league in rushing yards. The group on the other side of the ball is playing lights out on all three levels of defense, which is what really makes them scary.

Against Houston – who has a tenacious defense of their own – last Sunday, the Colts looked almost overwhelmed, with the offense getting absolutely no traction early on in the game. But head coach Frank Reich – who has to be in the NFL’s Coach of the Year award discussion at this point – made some critical in-game adjustments, putting the ball in quarterback Andrew Luck’s hands and just letting him go out there and “play football.” Luck has been among the best quarterbacks in the NFL when throwing play-action passes and is still enjoying the stellar blocking he’s receiving from a totally revamped offensive line.

More importantly, Luck has resumed the mantle of “franchise cornerstone” that everyone worried he might’ve lost after missing so much time due to injury. Even with the inconsistencies of his wide receivers (who are among the highest in drop rates in the NFL), Luck has continued to instill confidence for them to go out and make plays. That’s how guys like tight end Eric Ebron sit at the top of the league in touchdown passes (12), and wide receiver TY Hilton explodes for 556 yards receiving over the last four weeks.

Indianapolis enters this game as one of four teams with a 7-6 record fighting for the second Wild Card spot in the AFC playoff race. With the slip-ups they had early in the season, they simply cannot afford another loss at this point in the year; they’ll have their work cut out for them trying to pick up a win against a Dallas team that’s looked like one of the best in the league over the second half of the season.

As the home team, and the team with more “desperation,” we’ll give the nod to Indianapolis.

Pick: Indianapolis (-3)

New England at Pittsburgh (Pick’em)

At least in this current era of the NFL, anytime the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers play each other, it’s basically the football equivalent of a heavyweight boxing match. Although, this particular instance of the Patriots and Steelers facing each other feels like one of those heavyweight bouts where the fighters are squaring off against each other when they’re each a few years past their respective primes.

Despite last Sunday’s gut-wrenching loss, the Patriots are all but assured they’ll be going to the postseason. With a win against Pittsburgh plus a loss by the Tennessee Titans (who play a New York Giants team that’s won four of their last five games), they’ll clinch a postseason berth. With a win against the Steelers plus a loss by the Dolphins (Miami will face off against a Minnesota Vikings team that’s fighting for their playoff lives), New England clinches the AFC East for the 10th year in a row.

The Patriots we’ve been accustomed to are too resilient to let a seemingly “fluke” loss get them down; head coach Bill Belichick has imbued his team with his own personal mindset of being able to separate from the last game and move on to the next game. Tom Brady is 7-1 against Pittsburgh, having thrown 23 touchdowns – and only one interception – in eight games against the Steelers.

But the Patriots have also proven that, when they go on the road, they’re no longer the same juggernaut of years past.

They’re one of only two teams have won eight or more games through the first 14 weeks of the season, yet have a losing record on the road. Two of their three road wins have come against cellar-dwelling teams in the AFC (the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills). Last week, a sputtering Miami offense moved the ball virtually at will against a rapidly aging (and shockingly slow) New England defense. Two road games ago, the Tennessee Titans completely had their way with New England in every facet of the game.

Pittsburgh is another team that’ll be ready to put a miserable loss last week behind them (when the Steelers suffered an unconscionable defeat to the hapless Oakland Raider), and likely play with a heightened sense of urgency when they step on their home field on Sunday. In the midst of a three-game losing streak, the Steelers are now only a half-game ahead of the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North division lead, and having to qualify as a wild card team after picking up a sixth loss (Pittsburgh is 7-5-1) would be rather precarious, as they’d be right in the mosh pit of teams vying for that last playoff spot.

Knowing that Pittsburgh will likely be without running back James Conner, expect the Patriots to come out and drop as many guys back in coverage as possible, forcing the Steelers to beat them using the combination of third-string running back (and former New England teammate) Stevan Ridley and fullback Jaylen Samuels. The Steelers got very little from the two of them last Sunday, and shouldn’t expect things to be much different this week.

Assuming that’s the case, the Patriots’ offense has to do just enough to pull off this road win and prove that they’re still the kingpin of the AFC.

Pick: New England (Even)

Philadelphia at Los Angeles (-7.5)

While this matchup looked like one of the more intriguing ones of the weekend, everything changed with the news about one of the star quarterbacks not being able to suit up on Sunday.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is looking more and more doubtful to suit up against the Los Angeles Rams this weekend, which would put the Eagles in an even more uphill situation than they found themselves in before this news emerged.

The Eagles enter this game with a calculated 8% chance of making the playoffs. But the organization must see the writing on the wall or at least acknowledge the long odds of even making the playoffs, given the whispers that they’re going to shut Wentz down for the remainder of the season, to not exacerbate any of his current injury concerns.

If Philadelphia fans are excited by such an idea, under the ruse of Nick Foles suddenly guiding the Eagles to another Super Bowl run, they shouldn’t hold their breath.

For one, there’s nothing about this Eagles offense that’s shown they can suddenly play better for a quarterback that simply has never been as good as Wentz. For another matter, the defense has been an absolute sieve, no matter who’s been playing quarterback. Philadelphia’s secondary has been decimated by injuries, which is one of the biggest reasons why they’ve been getting shredded like a block of cheese in recent weeks.

At a macro level, for as much as things went in the Eagles’ favor last year, that’s how much they seem to be going in the opposite direction last year.

Philadelphia could’ve been entering this game with an entirely different narrative, had they not been the victim of some abominable officiating last Sunday. While no team or its fan base should ever blame the refs for a win or a loss, the zebras seemingly did everything they could – highlighted by the completely bogus offensive pass interference call on tight end Dallas Goedert, which took a touchdown for Philadelphia off the board – to hand Dallas a win. All season long, the Eagles’ lethality on 3rd down situations on offense from last year has been the exact opposite this year.

The Rams come into this game with the national narrative of not being as good as we thought they were earlier this year. However, it’s safe to say that they’re also not nearly as bad as they looked last Sunday when they were completely shut down by the Chicago Bears.

There’s no way that Rams’ head coach Sean McVay is going to put his team in a situation where running back Todd Gurley touches the ball less than 15 total times (the first time that’s happened since McVay has been coaching this team), or put quarterback Jared Goff in a situation where he’ll throw four interceptions (Goff hadn’t thrown more than two interceptions in any game while playing under McVay).

Again, if Eagles’ fans might be anxious to see some more magic from Foles, they’re going to be disappointed. The clock has already struck 12 for their Cinderella backup, and he’s going to be facing a Rams team that generates the most pressure on drop backs by the opposing quarterback.

Pick: Los Angeles (-7.5)

New Orleans (-7) at Carolina

Losing to the Cleveland Browns no longer carries the negative stigma that it used to as recently as two months ago. But that still doesn’t excuse the fact that the Carolina Panthers – who fancied themselves as a legitimate playoff contender in the NFC – lost to a team that had only four wins in 12 games entering their matchup.

No matter what’s being said publicly, it’s evident that Carolina quarterback Cam Newton is banged up. That’s to be expected at this point in the season, especially considering that he’s a quarterback who’s taken a lot of hits throughout the course of his career.

Then again, it’s not like this fact is some secret, considering Newton has been very limited in how many passes he’s throwing in practice; for a quarterback known for his arm strength and downfield passing ability, this is an ominous sign. Over the last five outings, Newton has thrown more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (seven) and is coming off a game in which he didn’t create or score a touchdown (passing or rushing) in over a year. So if Carolina wants a realistic shot of winning this Sunday, they’ll be leaning even more on stud running back Christian McCaffrey; although, their opponent – the New Orleans Saints – also happen to be one of the best in the league at stopping the run.

With all of that being said, should New Orleans be entering this game favored to win by a touchdown? The Saints might’ve beaten Tampa Bay last Sunday by two touchdowns, but they were down at halftime to a team that looked like they were already figuring out their offseason vacation plans. The week before that, they were thoroughly stifled by the red-hot Dallas Cowboys.

After throwing 15 touchdowns in a four-week span since the beginning of November, New Orleans’ quarterback Drew Brees has slowed down considerably, with back-to-back games with one touchdown pass, and three straight games with less than 202 yards passing. Once thought to be the favorite for the 2018 MVP Award, Brees might find himself in second or third place in the said race.

The reports are already out there that Carolina’s new owner David Tepper is seriously considering shaking things up in the front office, if not the coaching staff as well, meaning the latter group has their backs to the wall as much as the players. If the Panthers, as a whole, have aspirations of making the postseason, they’ll probably have the run the table: beating New Orleans at home this weekend, finishing off the floundering Atlanta Falcons, and then ending the season with another win over the Saints again.

So, a loss on Monday would not only end any such hopes but effectively put the nail on the coffin of their 2018 season. Given the fact that the Panthers are a total Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde act when playing at home (5-1) versus on the road (1-5), there’s a somewhat realistic chance they pull off the win in this game and a much more realistic chance that a loss would come by less than the projected seven-point margin.

Pick: Carolina (+7)

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