With 15 NFL Sundays down and two to go, the NFL playoff race is in the home stretch. And it basically consists of seven teams competing for three playoff spots.
Nine teams have either clinched a playoff berth or would only miss the playoffs under the most unlikely of scenarios: Denver will win the AFC West. Cincinnati will win the AFC North. New England will win the AFC East. Indianapolis has won the AFC South. Kansas City will win one of the AFC wild cards. Seattle will win the NFC West. Carolina or New Orleans will win the NFC South, and the other one will win an NFC wild card. San Francisco will get the other NFC wild card.
That leaves us with three playoff spots to fill: The NFC East, NFC North and the final AFC wild card.
The NFC East will come down to the Eagles and Cowboys. Philadelphia gave away the division lead on Sunday with a surprising loss at Minnesota, and then the Cowboys handed the lead right back to the Eagles with a meltdown against the Packers. But this division has looked for months like it will come down to the Week 17 Eagles-Cowboys game, and it still looks that way. I think the Eagles will win that game and win the division.
The NFC North is the NFL’s only three-team race, with the Lions, Bears and Packers all alive. Chicago improved to 8-6 and took a half-game lead by beating Cleveland on Sunday, but the Lions can get to 8-6 with a Monday night win over Baltimore, and the Lions own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bears. The Packers’ comeback at Dallas kept their playoff hopes alive. If the Lions win out, they win the NFC North. If the Lions slip up and the Packers and Bears both win next week, the NFC North will come down to the Week 17 Packers-Bears game. I expect Detroit to win out and win the division, but this one is very, very close.
And the AFC wild card will come down to Miami and Baltimore. Miami improved to 8-6 and took the lead by beating New England, but Baltimore can also get to 8-6 and even things up with a win in Detroit tonight. (The 7-7 Chargers are still alive, but they’re an extreme long shot.) I expect the Ravens to lose to the Lions tonight while the Dolphins continue to take care of business, and Miami will get the final playoff spot.
So there you have it: Our 12 playoff teams are Denver, Cincinnati, New England, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, Carolina, Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans and San Francisco. I’m pretty confident in that prediction, but you might want to go ahead and watch the last two weeks of the season, just in case.
Here are my observations from Sunday:
Maybe Washington’s whole team needs to be shut down for the season. Washington is an absolute mess. Kirk Cousins, the starting quarterback now that Robert Griffin III has been shut down for the season, played reasonably well in Sunday’s loss to the Falcons. But Washington has problems everywhere. The special teams are maybe the worst in the history of the NFL, and they lost a costly fumble on a muffed punt on Sunday. The defense can’t stop anyone. Even running back Alfred Morris, one of the few players in Washington who’s having a decent season, lost two fumbles against the Falcons. This team has a long rebuilding effort ahead, and the first-round draft pick (which will most likely be No. 2 overall) won’t be part of that rebuilding effort: That pick went to St. Louis in the trade to acquire Griffin.
Eli Manning is an elite interception thrower. The only major statistical category Manning has ever led the league in is interceptions, and he’s now well on his way to leading the league in that category for the third time. With his pathetic five-interception game on Sunday, Manning has now thrown a whopping 25 interceptions this season. Manning gets cut a lot of slack because he has two Super Bowl rings, but he throws some absolutely dreadful passes. Interceptions have always been a problem for Manning, and the way Manning has played this season is inexcusable.
Have you ever seen a stat line like Matt Asiata’s? No, you haven’t, because it has never happened before: Asiata’s stat line was 30 carries for 51 yards and three touchdowns. No player in NFL history had ever had 30 carries and three touchdowns while averaging less than two yards a carry, until Asiata did it on Sunday against the Eagles.
Rashad Johnson was flagged for playing football. Johnson, the Cardinals’ free safety, put a good, hard, clean, physical football hit on Titans receiver Kenny Britt on Sunday. Johnson put his shoulder into Britt’s chest, exactly the way NFL defensive backs are told to hit receivers. Inexplicably, Johnson was flagged for unnecessary roughness. The NFL simply can’t allow this to happen. It needs to find officials who can tell the difference between a helmet-to-helmet hit and a shoulder-to-chest hit, because it’s not fair to players like Johnson to have great plays taken away by bad flags.
Good thing Darnell Docket stomped on an opponent’s hand with NFL-approved shoes. NFL players are fined every week, but I can’t remember seeing two fines on the same day that looked as ridiculous next to each other as the fines announced on Friday for Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and Bears receiver Brandon Marshall. The NFL docked Dockett’s pay $7,875 for stomping on the hand of Rams guard Chris Williams. And the NFL docked Marshall’s pay $15,000 for wearing orange cleats. Is this really what the NFL’s discipline police think? That it’s worse to wear the wrong color shoes than to stomp on an opponent’s hand?
Why hasn’t Matt Cassel been Minnesota’s starter all along? The Vikings have alternated among Cassel, Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman as their starting quarterbacks this season, and the results speak for themselves: Minnesota is 3-2 with Cassel, 1-6-1 with Ponder and 0-1 with Freeman. Considering how bad the rest of the NFC North is, Cassel might have been able to keep the Vikings in the playoff race.