My thoughts on all 32 NFL franchises ahead of the chaotic 2021 off-season conclude today with thoughts on the eight teams from NFC south and west divisions.
Plenty of playoff previews this week, with a stack of points scored, as well as a lot of big plays being made on defense. Who’s hot and who’s not?
1. Kansas City Chiefs (12-1)
Last week: 1
Now confirmed as AFC West champs and odds-on for home-ground advantage (which is a little different this year as only the first seed in each conference gets that luxury), though crowds will be limited too. Patrick Mahomes had some mighty struggles against the Miami defense, but ultimately came away with the result – helped in no small part by tight end Travis Kelce who currently leads the league in receiving yards. He could be the first tight end ever to lead that stat by season’s end.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2)
Last week: 2
I’m especially salty at Pittsburgh, as their sudden dip in fortunes coincided with the fantasy football playoffs, so shout out to the defense and Chase Claypool for leaving me high and dry. The under-manned defense hung tough in the first half against the Bills, until Big Ben gave away a touchdown on a limp interception and for the rest of the game they decided to give Stefon Diggs defensive immunity, as no one was going near him. Hard road home now as they face the Colts and Browns after next week’s game against Cincy.
3. Buffalo Bills (10-3)
Last week: 4
Break out your best folding tables, Bills fans, cause that win over Pittsburgh could just open the door to being the number two seed in the AFC! Josh Allen did Josh Allen things in primetime and the defense made some decent plays too, with Taron Johnson swinging all momentum their way with a 51-yard interception return for a touchdown. Pretty sure playoff teams will start keying in on Stefon Diggs a bit more, though.
4. New Orleans Saints (10-3)
Last week: 4
Turns out that Jalen Hurts and the Eagles were a banana skin game for New Orleans. So, just like that, all the Taysom Hill chatter has stopped. The return of Drew Brees is getting close, but is not a certainty for next weeks “Superbowl preview” against the Chiefs. Don’t you hate it when they say “Superbowl preview”? Pretty much guarantees it won’t happen.
5. Green Bay Packers (10-3)
Last week: 5
The Packers are the king in the north. Again. Aaron Rodgers may just have nudged ahead in the MVP race too and if the Saints fall to KC next week, Green Bay could push their way into the top NFC seeding. I must say though that whenever I see Detroit giving them a tough game, the Packers seem to always end up on the right side of the referee calls. Next up, a tricky assignment against Carolina.
6. Seattle Seahawks (9-4)
Last week: 7
Yes, they won. And they won handily, even though it was against the Jets. Chef Russ got cooking – flipping four touchdown burgers, while Jamal Adams got a sack of Sam Darnold, to now have the most sacks (8.5) in a season by a safety ever. Jets fans might remember Jamal Adams. Actually, nah, let’s not even go there.
7. Cleveland Browns (9-4)
Last week: 6
Just as it looked like the Browns were ready to put some demons to rest and get over the hump – being they were up against the Ravens – they come out and let them put 47 points on them. Yes, it was a bright offensive outing by Baker Mayfield (343 yards, two touchdowns) and Nick Chubb (82 yards, two touchdowns), but a) you can’t have your defense let the opposition go through you so easily, and b) the final touchdown the Browns scored to even things up left just over a minute on the clock, which seemed fairly obvious as to what would happen next.
8. Tennessee Titans (9-4)
Last week: 7
This is one hell of a dangerous team for anyone in the playoffs. When King Henry gets rolling – like he did with 215 rushing yards against the Jags – AFC defenses could well have their hands full. With Ryan Tannehill playing Robin to his Batman and then A.J. Brown also being Robin; wait, now there’s two Robins? Okay, this is not the best metaphor. Maybe A.J. could be Alfred? Oh, forget it. You know what I’m trying to say.
9. Indianapolis Colts (9-4)
Last week: 9
Hailed all season for their defence, it was actually Phillip “Old Man” Rivers and the offence getting it done against the Raiders. T.Y. Hilton picked up a couple of scores, as did rookie running back Jonathan Taylor, who exploded with 150 yards. Taylor also dealt a huge dagger to the Vegas defense, as he cut them up for a 62-yard score, which pushed them out of reach for the rest of the game.
The game’s best play did come on defense though, with deep back Kenny Moore Jr. snaring one of the best interceptions you’ll see – a leaping, stretching, one-handed acrobatic grab. Wow.
10. Los Angeles Rams (9-4)
Last week: 10
Watching the Rams versus Patriots game on Friday was like watching someone hitting a watermelon with a mallet for three hours. Fortunately for L.A., they were holding the mallet. Rookie running back Cam Akers ran for 171 yards – to really to put his name up in lights, while Jared Goff fed his receivers and the imposing defense did it’s thang (scoring a touchdown of their own). If the Rams can get the ground game cranking in the playoffs, the NFC could be in trouble.
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5)
Last week: 12
Tompa Bay improved to 6-1 on the season after committing no turnovers and their quarterback also got a little bit of his mojo back. Now three games from what they are expecting to be their first playoff visit since 2007, they’ve got a nice run in to the promised land. They play Detroit and the Falcons (twice), so really if they don’t make it, they’ll have choked like I did in the 1996 Tour Championship against Happy Gilmore.
12. Miami Dolphins (8-5)
Last week: 11
Missing pretty much all of their top running backs and receivers and down on linebackers, they still gave Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs a tonne of problems. The defense intercepted Mahomes three times, including Xavien Howard’s endzone beauty (which was overshadowed later by the Colts’ Kenny Moore Jr). Considering Mahomes had only thrown two interceptions all season, that’s a big achievement – even forcing a sack for a 30-yard loss, too!
Tua Tagovailoa showed plenty of resilience, too, leading a “close but no cigar” comeback. It’s a race between Tua and Lamar for the seventh playoff spot.
13. Baltimore Ravens (8-5)
Last week: 13
Whether it was cramp or crap, Lamar Jackson’s exit (excuse the pun) and re-entry into the game is going to go down in Ravens folklore. They were up against it too – taking on a hot Browns team at home and they went toe-to-toe in an incredible clash. Plenty of defense to work on, but Baltimore now takes on the Jaguars, Giants and Bengals in what should be a “relieving” run home.
14. Arizona Cardinals (7-6)
Last week: 16
The Cardinals were staring into the abyss of a lost season, before they came out and owned the Giants. Kyler Murray was tidy, Kenyon Drake efficient and DeAndre Hopkins added 136 receiving yards, but the man of the hour was linebacker Haason Reddick. The former first-round pick was much maligned as in inside linebacker, but shifting him to outside this year has seen an upswing in fortunes.
Against the G-Men he was like a pass rusher in Madden 2006 – adding a Cardinals record five sacks in a game. He’s now up to ten sacks for the season and couldn’t pick a better time to shine.
15. Las Vegas Raiders (7-6)
Last week: 14
Just as the Raiders had caused the Jets to fire their defensive co-ordinator last week, this week they fired their own as Jon Gruden has “the chat” to fire Paul Guenther. It was probably fair, as his defensive unit flashed ability in a couple of games, but nowhere near enough to have this team where it wants to be. From here, they play the Chargers and Broncos, plus a huge Week 16 matchup against Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins, which will basically be early playoffs for both teams.
16. Washington Football Team (6-7)
Last week: 19
Holy pigskins – we knew this team would fight hard for coach Ron Rivera this year, but now they have won four straight and lead the NFC East! Built on a tough defense, with a D-line of high draft picks, they managed to score their own touchdown, as Chase Young grabbed a fumble at midfield then raced all the way to the endzone.
Quarterback Alex Smith left the game with a calf injury and was replaced by Dwayne Haskins, who showed a little bit of life. But it will be worth keeping an eye on how this plays out ahead of next week’s meeting with Seattle.
17. Minnesota Vikings (6-7)
Last week: 17
Not a terminal loss against the Bucs, but now the Vikings must rely on the Cardinals slipping up down the stretch, while taking care of their own business. Dalvin Cook is still trotting along nicely and there are plenty of pieces going okay for the purple people eaters. The biggest issue is whether to stick with kicker Dan Bailey who missed four kicks in this game. Mike Zimmer says that’s still his guy, but we’ll see.
18. New England Patriots (6-7)
Last week: 17
Ah yes, the aforementioned “watermelon”. Well, I’m not really sure what else to say here other than how the hell did these guys destroy the Chargers and then look so lifeless against the Rams? I know, I know, COVID defections and all that, but still, you expect better fight and execution from Bill’s boys.
Next up, Miami.
19. Chicago Bears (6-7)
Last week: 22
For the second week in a row, these Bears scored more than 30 points and this week, Mitchell Trubisky played – I hope you’re sitting down for this – really well. He had 178 passing yards and three scores in the first half, while running back David Montgomery kick-started things with an 80-yard touchdown run. On the other side of the ball, Khalil Mack was a menace, leading the defence that turned this game into a rout. I’m still in disbelief.
20. New York Giants (5-8)
Last week: 18
Fresh from a memorable win last week against the Seahawks, the Giants came out with renewed vigour in search of keeping things rolling against the Cards. Yeah, that didn’t happen. Daniel Jones was clearly not anywhere near ready to play, as he moved around the pocket like I do with a hangover. He got sacked repeatedly, was benched for Colt McCoy, who then got smacked on his first play. Just one of them days.
21. San Francisco 49ers (5-8)
Last week: 20
The game with Washington was really swung on its head by the Chase Young fumble recovery touchdown. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel left the game early with an injury and now it becomes a question of how to approach the rest of this year – with guys like Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle. The playoff dream dashed, so they might want to put the cue in the rack.
22. Detroit Lions (5-8)
Last week: 21
Since the Lions offensive co-ordinator Darrell Bevell has taken over as interim head coach, the team has actually played pretty well. They were in this contest up to their eyeballs against the Packers and were not helped by some close calls and Matthew Stafford’s injury. I’m quite interested to see how the rest of this season and upcoming off-season plays out for these guys.
23. Denver Broncos (5-8)
Last week: 24
Showing a few signs of life are this Broncos squad, as Drew Lock got things going against the Panthers. Edging a 32-27 win was much needed to give a bit of belief to this down-trodden bunch, that there is actually quite a bit of potential here. The trick will be if they can actually start to do it in games that matter.
24. Philadelphia Eagles (4-8-1)
Last week: 27
Well, if things didn’t go to plan last week with the benching of Carson Wentz, I guess things have really gone off track as rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts led a huge upset win against the NFC-leading Saints.
So, Doug Pederson, now where to?
Apparently Hurts will stay as starter for this week, which is kinda hard to argue with, when he threw for 167 yards, a touchdown and ran for another 106 yards. Most importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over. Add in some nice defensive pressure and a Miles Sanders double and this story becomes more and more interesting.
25. Los Angeles Chargers (4-9)
Last week: 28
Well, much to everyone’s surprise, the Chargers played against the Falcons and the game didn’t end in a tie and also the world didn’t end. The mere concept of these two teams playing and trying to lose to each other might have caused a glitch in the matrix. And boy, they did try.
Justin Herbert threw an interception with the game tied and 50 seconds left, only for Matt Ryan to throw one with 35 seconds left. Thanks goodness Bolts kicker Michael Badgley didn’t fluff the kick or who knows what would’ve happened!
26. Houston Texans (4-9)
Last week: 25
I guess someone called the fun police, cause these Texans had zero fun against the Bears. The defense let Mitchell Trubisky walk all over them. Yes, that Mitchell Trubisky. While the offense did not look fun at all. They could still play spoiler to either the Titans or Colts, but I’m not sure how much joy will be in that.
27. Carolina Panthers (4-9)
Last week: 25
They tried so hard and got so far, but in the end it doesn’t even matter. Seven one-score losses for the ‘Cardiac Cats’ in 2020 tells a tale of what could have been. A promising young defense is competing well and the Christian McCaffrey-less offense is hanging in there too, but they just need a bit more juice to get over that ‘one-score loss’ hump.
28. Atlanta Falcons (4-9)
Last week: 23
As a Falcons fan, it has taken me a long time to get to this point and it hurts me to say, but – get rid of Matt Ryan. Sure, he’s done a lot of amazing things over the years, but all I see now is a guy that just doesn’t know how to win.
Formerly nicknamed Matty Ice, I must say that the game has changed and global warming is melting him down to pretty much nothing. The defense battled hard and an under-manned receiving corps tried their guts out, so they deserve better. As do the linemen, coaches, owners and fans.
29. Dallas Cowboys (4-9)
Last week: 29
Yippee! A win.
Even though it was against the Bengals team, which is basically a ghost ship for the rest of the year, Dem Boys will still take it. Andy Dalton will too – beating his former team handily, even though I’m sure he’s not a spiteful kind of guy or anything, but still… next week is a dance with the 49ers and if anyone knows what that will bring, then kudos to you.
30. Cincinnati Bengals (2-10-1)
Last week: 30
Legendary receiver A.J. Green grabbed his 65th career touchdown, which now leaves him one shy of Chad Johnson/Ocho Cinco for the Bengals all time record. For all he has done for this team, I really hope he can get one more touchdown in the next three games, although he did leave with a leg injury (surprise, surprise).
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-12)
Last week: 31
Without being an animal behaviourist, I get the impression that the Jaguars are a bit like real jaguars – in that some days they fight, bite and scratch, while on other days they just seem to sit there and do nothing at all. That’s usually the case against the Titans, who put another 200+ rushing yards on them this week. Oh, Gardner Minshew came back into the game too. Oh joy.
32. New York Jets (0-13)
Last week: 32
Now listen here, you Jets. You have worked too hard for this all year to let it slip now. You are now just three games away – against the Rams, Browns and Patriots – from completing the “perfect” season and bringing in Trevor Lawrence to save you all. Not exactly sure what you’ll do with Sam Darnold, but for now, just focus on not messing up these next three games.